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Plummer is regal in 'Lear'

The 74-year-old actor reaches the pinnacle of his career in Jonathan Miller's otherwise routine staging.

March 05, 2004|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

NEW YORK — Like the man said: Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. And some have greatness thrust upon them. The words come from "Twelfth Night," but Shakespeare may as well have been reviewing a certain production of a different play, the one at Lincoln Center Theater with Christopher Plummer scaling a career-capping role of epic, fearsome dimensions.

In "King Lear," 74-year-old Plummer -- one of our cagiest classical actors, with a voice like a viola and a smile deployed like a curse -- plays a foolish, vain and finally devastated father of three daughters. Two of the daughters are not nice. The third one is, although goodness (in the words of that ace Shakespearean, Mae West) has nothing to do with it. Not in this pitiless universe.

"King Lear" is a great and greatly daunting play. Plummer's performance in the title role, following a 2002 engagement at the Stratford Festival of Canada, achieves moments and occasional sustained passages of greatness, particularly in the small, soulful glimmers of self-knowledge. When Plummer's frosty-bearded, white-haired king is told by his Fool that he has grown "old before thy time," Lear realizes his wits and his life are both nearing the end. As spoken by Plummer, the line "O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!" disregards the exclamation point, taking the entreaty inward. It's one of those exquisitely painful moments when all pomp and bombast are stripped away, revealing an imperfect human soul.

Thus does Plummer thrust a little greatness upon an otherwise routine "King Lear."

The production is directed by Jonathan Miller on one of those heavy wooden sets that screams out: No surprises here. Miller intends a clear, traditionally grounded version, built upon the strengths of a first-rate Lear. Here, though, tradition jousts with defiant noninterpretation all night. And Plummer finds himself surrounded by a handful of workmanlike supporting performances and a larger handful of merely adequate ones.

Plummer last appeared on Broadway in "Barrymore," offering audiences a heavenly slice of deviled ham. He was clearly better than his material. That is not the case here. At times, though, you wonder if Lear's disdainful regard of his extended family overlaps with Plummer's suppressed irritation regarding his flat-footed colleagues.

"King Lear" begins with the monarch dividing his land among three daughters. His ickily playful request -- that each daughter tell him why she loves Lear most -- goes so wrong, by the end of the play it's as if the gods had voted him off the planet. Things go no better for Lear's comrade, Gloucester (James Blendick), whose onstage blinding is one of the most brutal scenes in Shakespeare, and whose illegitimate son Edmund (Geraint Wyn Davies) competes with his half brother, Edgar (Brent Carver), for control of an unstable world.

The play's sick-cosmic-joke streak plainly interests director Miller. (Before all his big operatic and Shakespearean projects, Miller made his name on "Beyond the Fringe" with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.)

Miller and Plummer indulge in a touch of gallows humor in Lear's first line. When the king says, "Attend the lords of France and Burgundy," Plummer's Lear, his hands shaking with palsy, can't recall Burgundy's name, and after a few snaps of his fingers, he still can't get it. Small bits as well as huge, richly expressive, roof-rattling cries to the heavens: Plummer makes virtually everything work, with the odd exception of the storm scene on the heath. Dramatically this one's a bit of a drizzle.

Weather aside, no "Lear" benefits from a Regan (Lucy Peacock) who early on settles for silly, monotone line readings and arch frippery, like Lady Teazle in a second-rate production of "The School for Scandal." This production's Cordelia (Claire Jullien) fails to particularize any of the plights at hand; she's mere Distress with a capital D. Several others fare better, such as Domini Blythe's Goneril, and Davies' Edmund and Carver's Edgar. But when Plummer's offstage, this "King Lear" would work just as well (or rather, just as forgettably) as radio drama.

The director doesn't exactly activate that big, blocky set with dynamic groupings. Every scene in every act gets rolled out with the same ceremonial, plodding rhythm. Actors walk on stage -- no one seems to be in any kind of hurry in this production -- stand still for a few minutes, and then leave again. This is no way to enliven a granite-hard tragedy.

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