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Folger Teams With Classical Theatre of Harlem for Physical'King Lear'

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s current production of “King Lear” approaches the great Shakespearean tragedy with more pageantry than serious storytelling. Nonetheless, it’s an entertaining production in its own right.

Co-produced with the Classical Theatre of Harlem, the Folger’s “King Lear” is extraordinarily physical. The classic story of an aging king who goes mad and divides up his kingdom between two daughters while wrongly banishing the third is set against a backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia, evoking the mystery of a long-ago Middle Eastern culture. The costuming is eye-popping—brilliantly hued, sequined and revealing—and sound effects in the form of Middle Eastern and African music and drumming are sensuous. In bare feet, sarong skirts and loose, cropped pants, cast members tumble across the stage and dazzle with acrobatics.

The direct audience participation is another highlight. On one night, a male audience member didn’t seem to know what to do when the devious Edmund beckoned him hither to ask his opinion on which of Lear’s daughters he should marry, Goneril or her equally treacherous sister Regan. In one speech, Lear actually steps into the audience and frames a woman’s face with his hands. Viewers are also treated to the mad king in a g-string—although his attendants seek to cover him with a robe. After all, he is a king.

The lush production and physicality of the play, including plenty of overt allusions to sex, tend to shift the focus away from what many love most about Shakespeare: not the plots or the characterizations, but the words themselves—the immortal words of the Bard. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. Away, away!” In his delivery of that line, André De Shields as Lear does not sear those famous words onto one’s heart.

No, this is more of an action Lear. And one can’t help but wonder whether he’ll be back among the audience again or what he’ll be wearing. At one point, the mentally deteriorating Lear stumbles onstage, looking remarkably like a chic version of Tom Hanks from the movie “Cast Away.” With a crown of reeds and weeds, a moss-like chenille scarf draped around his neck, and some really cool beachcomber pants, one can’t help but marvel at yet another great costume.

But some of the performances in this production do present excellent characterizations. Ty Jones is a sly, manipulative and well-muscled Edmund. Harold Surratt is a good Gloucester and conveys true concern and loyalty for the king. Surratt might be recognizable to some playgoers from his many film and television appearances. Jerome Preston Bates is a fine Kent, and Ken Schatz does indeed know how to play the Fool.

Chantal Jean-Pierre and Deidra LaWan Starnes, as Goneril and Regan respectively, don’t effect their evil machinations with regal restraint. Instead, strutting about in their harem-like costumes, they show an in-your-face hostility toward their father, the king. That’s not to say their performances are lacking. They simply must be appreciated in the context of this production, which doesn’t care about subtlety.

In his director’s notes, Alfred Preisser, co-founder of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, references Margaret Mead in describing Mesopotamia as having “an openly sensual and competitive concept of life [that] colored every aspect of family and society.” Appropriate to this theme, the sisters get what they want and don’t really care about dad going mad.

This is a different “King Lear”—with sass and attitude—and what is undeniably interesting about this production is the way it’s been staged. Storytelling can be verbal and it can be visual. This “King Lear” asks the audience to observe what it does, not so much what it says. It wants us to consider the tale of the fabled, mad monarch in an exotic setting that is no longer in existence. For better or worse, it is that different civilization that captures one’s attention more than Shakespeare’s words.

“King Lear” is the first dramatic production in a full roster of events running through May in celebration of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 75th anniversary. As English is one of the most changing, adaptable languages in the world—and certainly the most widely spoken in commerce—Shakespeare could only be proud that his story has endured long enough to be taken back to the ancient Middle East. And the Folger and Classical Theatre of Harlem should be congratulated for staging an unusual production.

King Lear through Feb. 18 Folger Shakespeare Library 201 East Capitol St., SE Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999