From the first visual images, the Maryland Stage Company's production of Shakespeare's "King Lear" has a highly eclectic air.
Heavy on black and gold, with elaborate neck and collar treatments and lots of hoods, Elena Zlotescu's costume designs look like a blend of medieval, Middle Eastern and science-fiction motifs.
The hooded figures haunt much of the action and also serve the useful purpose of moving scenery, but initially they just stand on the periphery like carrion birds or executioners -- an appropriate metaphor for a play suffused with doom.
And yet, Xerxes Mehta, artistic director of this resident company of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and his creative team -- setdesigner J. Michael Griggs, lighting designer Terry Cobb, composer Forrest Tobey and fight choreographer Lewis Shaw -- carry eclectic imagery too far.
Consider two examples. One of the tragedy's most affecting scenes comes when Lear succumbs to madness after dividing his kingdom between his two older daughters, who then spurn him. Sam McCready plays Lear with a combination of doddering gentleness and a pathetic lack of self-knowledge, and this is one of his stronger scenes -- all the more because it is subtly performed. But much of that subtlety is lost due to the extraneous appearance of two actors dressed as mud-covered madmen, who slowly cross the stage hauling a bundle of sticks and something resembling a giant sickle.
The production's final image is even more overwrought. The set's back walls part to reveal an enormous, glowing eclipse. A literal representation of the Act 1 line, "These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us," it offers a literal statement at a mournful point when poetry is most needed. Nor does it help that a man is silhouetted in armor in front of the eclipse; it's an effect out of "The Terminator," not Shakespeare.
Despite this over-reliance on special effects, a number of thoughtful performances shine through. As Lear's loyal, youngest daughter, Cordelia, Anne Greene radiates intelligence and dignity, and James Brown-Orleans' wise, melancholy Fool is beautifully realized. One slick touch in Mehta's direction is the way he finesses the Fool's sudden, unexplained disappearance; after his final scene, the Fool is simply carried off by the hooded stagehands, presumably to meet his fate at the hands of the enemy.
Wendy Salkind and Gina Maloney imbue Cordelia's cruel sisters with intriguing complexities. Salkind's Goneril slips dangerously and rapidly from compassion into rage, jealousy and eventually murderous passion, and Maloney combines Regan's malevolence with eerie giddiness. As Edgar and Edmund, the half-brothers in the plot that parallels Lear's story, Michael Stebbins and Rick Lowe display natures as opposite as day and night.
Overall, however, this is far from an even ensemble; Shakespeare's verse sounds unnatural on the tongues of several cast members. But ultimately, the technical elements create the greatest imbalance. It's no accident that these effects figure more prominently in this review than the actors do. That's the approach director Mehta has taken. And while it might work with a less language-based text, in this case, the Maryland Stage Company's scenic eclipse comes perilously close to eclipsing Shakespeare's verse.
What: "King Lear"
Where: UMBC Theatre, 5401 Wilkens Ave., Catonsville
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; through May 22
Call: (410) 455-2476