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DTC's King Lear Strips the Mean Old Coot to the Skin

King Leer: In DTC's King Lear, actor Brian McEleney gets naked. You've been warned.
Karen Almond

Actor Brian McEleney is the luckiest person in the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre during Dallas Theater Center's production of King Lear. He's the only one in the hall who doesn't have to watch his performance in the title role.

For this co-production with Rhode Island's Trinity Repertory Company, DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty has cast it poorly, starting with the lead, and then piled too many gimmicks onto Shakespeare's epic paean to pessimism and paternal authority. From the first entrance of Lear, tottering through tall double doors at the center of a set paneled with sheets of dung-colored lumber, it's evident that many bad decisions have been made.

Regarded as one of the great old-guy roles in all of Shakespeare, Lear usually goes to the big-voiced, barrel-chested senior actor. Think Laurence Olivier, James Earl Jones, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi. At DTC, in choosing Trinity Rep veteran McEleney (who also heads Brown University's MFA acting program), Moriarty veers too far in the other direction. Instead of a powerful, regal father figure, we get Hume Cronyn with a touch of Floyd the barber. Instead of a booming delivery, we hear McEleney's high, thin whine as he shakes his fist with "get off my lawn" sputter. His isn't exactly a one-note performance — he probably hits other notes only dogs can hear — but he screams nearly every word with the same shrill squeak.

This King Lear is a huge thing stretched across the big stage at the Wyly, spilling down the side aisles. And it's godawful long in the way that so many of the Bard's tragedies are. Heavily populated, too, with even more than the usual count of dukes, daughters, earls, knights, heralds, servants and messengers standing around during scenes, often doing nothing, like they're waiting for a bus. Hardly ever alone, only Lear gets a chair in his plywood palace (designed by Michael McGarty). For everyone else, strictly SRO.

For brief comic relief, there is a Fool in the king's retinue (he's played with silly flourishes by Stephen Berenson, another long-timer from Trinity Rep). Not laughing, however, are the poor fools in the audience who paid to sit through this production's numbing two hours and 55 minutes of shouting and gratuitous nudity.

Yes, there is naked flesh in this Lear. A glimpse of bare bodkin would be a welcome diversion from all the lugubrious screeching, except the naked guy here is the elderly monarch, who rips off every stitch during the "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!" speech, giving us a view of the crack in his. There stands McEleney as Lear, as shriveled and pale as a hairless Sphinx cat, water pouring down upon his bald head from a hole in the ceiling. He stays for many minutes directly under that dripping downspout, a physical and visual metaphor for everything that's wrong with this sodden production. "Ay, every inch a king," Lear declares about himself. Let's assume he means before shrinkage.

King Lear doesn't need shtick like dressing the characters in modern suits, with the guards acting like Secret Service agents wielding guns. (DTC's Chamblee Ferguson, playing the Duke of Cornwall in dark business attire, comes off like a funeral director.) It doesn't need collapsing walls and rivers of water to tell us the senile king's having a mental breakdown. Lear's central story of a control-freak father, two greedy daughters, Goneril (Christie Vela) and Regan (Angela Brazil), and the one, Cordelia (Abbey Siegworth being bland, bland, bland), who refuses to suck up and is thus disinherited — that's enough. In the play's parallel storyline, evil Edmund (Lee Trull, giving the best performance of the night) and sweet Edgar (Steven Walters), sons of the Earl of Gloucester (played by a woman here, Phyllis Kay), battle each other for their shares of a large inheritance.

It's Downton Abbey in iambic pentameter. It's Dallas, where J.R. Ewing was Lear. Daddy's dyin', who's got the will to take him on?

At DTC, ye olde king trots around the second act in a pair of white cotton drawers and a crown of twigs. Edmund, pretending to be a madman, wears dirty gray underpants and a rag on his head. The French and English armies, previously kitted out with handguns, suddenly do battle with knives and sticks in a weirdly choreographed fight scene that brings to mind the Jets and Sharks in their rumble under the bridge.

Like the wind of which King Lear doth speak, this whole production blows.


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