`Lear': Dark, disturbing and engaging

Theater Review


When the storm rages in Center Stage's production of Shakespeare's King Lear, walls collapse and water pours from the ceiling into a trap door in which Lear dances with his Fool.

Lunacy reigns, and far more bleakness and horror are yet to come. Director Irene Lewis' production occupies a surreal landscape where the walls are as askew as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and the imagery suggests Beckett or Fellini.

This disturbing, even nihilistic, production is set in a place of terrors - filial, fraternal, marital and political. But at the same time, it's a vibrant, involving production whose tone is set by Stephen Markle's vigorous portrayal of Lear.

Markle reduces the monarch's age from "fourscore and upward" to threescore (the actor's own age). This isn't a Lear in his dotage, turning his kingdom over to the next generation so that he can enjoy a few tranquil last years. Markle's Lear is more like a robust executive, ceding power so he can lead an active retirement.

But he's also rash, headstrong and subject to wildly changeable moods. In the opening scene, when he asks his three daughters to express their love as a prerequisite to winning part of his realm, he blatantly favors his youngest, Heidi Armbruster's gentle, unaffected Cordelia. Lear laughs with her, sings with her and then places his crown on her head. But when she refuses to flatter him in the insincere manner of her sisters, Markle's Lear explodes, pushing her to the floor as he disinherits her.

Markle makes Lear's descent into madness a gradual process, however. Intriguingly, his Lear becomes quieter as he grows increasingly insane, accompanied by Laurence O'Dwyer as his loyal, truth-telling Fool, whose heart breaks as his master's mind goes. Even more heart-wrenching is the eventual reconciliation scene between Lear and Cordelia, a scene so poignant, you wish the play could end there. But, of course, it can't. There's a body count to be met.

Nor is Lear's the only story in this immense tragedy. Paralleling the account of the king and his daughters is the tale of the Earl of Gloucester (David Cromwell) and his two sons, devoted Edgar and evil Edmund.

Tony Ward delivers a beautifully detailed depiction of Edgar, who adopts two disguises - and two accents, first Appalachian, then Bostonian - so that, undetected, he can aid the father who disowned him. Jon David Casey's Edmund is more problematic; though his appearance and manner suggest a rebel rock star, his speech has a bored, affectless quality that undercuts some of the character's innate malevolence.

There are other peculiarities to this production, which takes place in an unspecified modernesque time period. Women's shoes inexplicably litter the set at one point, and much later, Edgar and Edmund are tethered together with a rope for their fatal dual. Another of Lewis' emendations makes more sense. A number of bit parts are played by two actors (Rod Brogan and Jay Edwards) - a bit of economizing that mirrors the way Lear's older daughters reduce his retinue.

Designer Robert Israel's Head Theater set is spare in color (mostly black and white) and scenery (the chief elements are a huge boulder and a shiny, black plastic curtain that resembles trash bags). The trash-bag effect is significant. At the end of this dire play, Lear's kingdom has been trashed. Many of the characters have learned from their mistakes, but for most, it's too late.

As the cataclysms build - accompanied by some gasp-inducing gore - Center Stage's production becomes increasingly difficult to sit through. But for a tragedy in which the words "nothing" and "never" are leitmotifs, the degree of audience discomfort is a sure sign of success.


King Lear Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Through Nov. 6. $10-$65. Call 410-332-0033.

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