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THEATER REVIEW 'KING LEAR' : Identity Crisis : Uneven performances and diverse elements make the PCPA Theaterfest's production shaky.

August 15, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Who is it that can tell me who I am?" asks James Edmondson's King Lear, acknowledging too late his long-neglected need for an authentic identity.

Inadvertently, this fundamental question in Shakespeare's tragedy also becomes a central issue for PCPA Theaterfest's production as well. In this "Lear," director Paul Barnes tries to wrest a coherent staging out of uneven performances and diverse elements ranging from Druidic primitivism to Japanese Butoh dance.

There are flashes of brilliance here--many from Edmondson's performance as the aging monarch trying to relinquish power without losing the devotion and respect that go with it. His story illustrates how families--and by natural extension entire societies--are torn apart when those at the top abdicate their responsibilities.

This is a fool-king who has never learned to distinguish the boundaries between his own gratification and the external world. That understanding comes only through suffering, of which this play provides a generous supply--from betrayal to rage to madness and death. It is only after being stripped of the trappings, the things he thought he was, that Lear can begin to approach the question of who he really is.

Edmondson's precision and focus are quite commanding in the evolution of Lear's self-concept, bearing, and even his language--shifting his pronouns from the omnipotent self-reference of the royal "We" to the more humble "I." His painful birth of self is made more terrible by its partiality--he never recognizes the full degree of his own complicity in his tragedy.

Lear doesn't have to recognize that complicity, but the production does--and too many opportunities are missed in this regard. One way would be to avoid the cliched characterizations of his traitorous daughters (Gale Fury Childs and Kitty Balay) as simply evil vipers. The pair behave wickedly, but it would be far more satisfying to reflect some of the reasons for their wickedness than to simply take it for granted.

Lear's folly is implicitly emphasized by strong performances from Jonathan Gillard Daly's Kent and Amy Prosser's Cordelia--both are loyal and courageous supporters he doesn't really deserve. But a more direct statement could be made if Edmondson risked showing more of the obsessiveness and tyranny in Lear's perpetual need for reassurance.

A real bastard he may be, but in Edmund (along with Iago and Richard III), Shakespeare defined a new kind of villain, able to observe society from an outsider's perch and manipulate it for his own benefit.

Sneering at "the excellent foppery of the world" by which men assign events to causes outside themselves, Edmund places himself at the center of his own universe. His outlook is a relativism born of social disintegration (the Thirty Years War, severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church) that brings Shakespeare's England closer to our own rootless time than to the intervening centuries. Greenman's inability to get to these deeper levels of Edmund proves a big disappointment--all we see is a pretty boy in a temper tantrum.

The staging here ranges from the inspired to the incongruous. Thumping drums introduce an effective ritualistic primitivism. But while Michael Ganio's scenic design achieves a timeless rough-hewn look, his weirdly colored ragged costumes (especially on Frederic Barbour's Fool) come distractingly from left field. Apparently, the inspiration came from the Butoh dancers of Japan, but the association is too obscure. In this regard In this regard the production stumbles, like Lear himself, into a self-referential trap.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"King Lear," performed at the Solvang Festival Theatre Aug. 16, 22, 26, and 31, and Sept. 4 and 8. Evening performances at 8:30 are $17 and $15 Fridays and Saturdays and $16 and $13 Sundays through Thursdays. Call (800) 221-9469 for reservations or further information.

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