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Byron Woods

Long live the King

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It's become a January tradition--and long may it continue. Once again, Playmakers Repertory Company has returned from the winter holidays with a work whose dramatic achievements set a series of benchmarks that are likely to challenge the audience--and the region's theater--in the year to come.

In January 2003, it was the close home truths and subtle technical triumphs of Dinner with Friends, a chamber play whose finely detailed characters and unblinking examination of contemporary relationships made its baby-boomer audiences squirm.

This season, the first of two contrasting versions of King Lear being mounted simultaneously at Playmakers returns regional audiences to the same realm of vivid, epic imagination and systemic artistic accomplishment Adrian Hall most recently visited in All the King's Men I & II.

But where a tight budget arguably forced Burning Coal to go minimal at places in the set design of that show, Lear's designers seem to have been let totally off leash to come up with set, lights and costumes that fully realize and reinforce the cold, industrial shipyard metalworks site where guest director Mark Wing-Davey sets the play.

We must also credit the programmers of Playmakers' current season with a wicked sense of segue. In their just concluded production of Hobson's Choice, the wheel of the social order turned at the end of the Victorian era, miraculously without crushing anyone for once. In Lear, of course, most of the central players are ruined or killed as the old order evolves into the new. To further the production's central metaphor, industrial accidents plague the site where the ship of state is constantly being built.

This is actually one of the more interesting departures in Wing-Davey's interpretation of the First Folio text featured in this production. Those already familiar with the script are likely just as familiar with the traditional central theme attributed to it: divergent takes on the nature of--well, Nature--as embodied for good or ill by various central characters.

Sooner or later, Gloucester, his ambitious, illegitimate son Edmond, Lear and his daughters Gonerill and Regan all assume they know Nature. They then assume no consequence will come from tinkering with it. Ultimately the group is somehow still amazed to find the same storm, the same inhospitable elements await all who knowingly disassemble their own house, or toy with its foundation.

It's a reading that conflates nature--whatever that might be--with a culture's views on morality and social order. Its fundamental message? Act civilized or court the whirlwind. Tear down the protections of family and be torn apart yourself. Clearly, it's a reading freighted with a culture's preconceptions.

But Wing-Davey steps back from that world just enough to find a new dimension in an old argument--one, though, which may not entirely comfort traditionalists in the audience.

In this world, the order has to change, in large part because Lear and his companions turn out to be something along the lines of social dinosaurs. In Wing-Davey's world, a culture developing in sophistication chafes in the presence of its antecedents. The generation bred from warrior stock look on its predecessors with distaste.

The contrast is clearest in Marinia Draghici's stratified costumes. If the older crew is briefly capable of dress-up at affairs of state, they revert to coarser, plainer garb--and talk, and behavior--when ceremony ends. Their presence on stage is accompanied by the heads of freshly killed wild game, and the brown and gray worn hunting garb is accessorized with blood. The costume of the fool's is in similar keeping: straightjacket and twin gas masks turned into a coxcomb.

These are easily distinguished from the designer wear and Soviet-style military uniforms the younger generation sports.

Staying competent in changing times becomes a challenge to all. In this world there's arguably a Darwinian aspect to supposedly evil machinations. Even with little opposition, Kenneth Strong's Kent winds up in stocks, his mission incomplete, his letter from the King undelivered, and never offered. At first sight of John Feltch playing Edgar, Gloucester's legitimate son, we conclude he may be too naive to live, or keep the social privileges he was born with.

Edmond's machinations, and those of Gonerill and Regan, become a test, in short, of minimal competency; a virus of sorts, whose purpose is to weed out overweening naivete.

All of which is another reading of nature, in short. It's one a bit more closely placed to the present than those of Shakespeare's era, and it informs a fascinating work.

Actors tend to call the role of Lear "Shakespeare's Everest." With Wing-Davey's guidance, Michael Winters' ascent is notable. He carefully probes the character's anger, devastation, and the delicate eggshell state of a crumbling psyche. We only questioned his range and scope on opening night in the final subtractions his Lear endures, when his character appeared at times to echo earlier emotional states instead of finding new ones.

Ronn Carroll exercises considerable care and craft as he explores the tragedy of Gloucester. Rebecca Wisocky particularly chills as Gonerill, but we are left to wonder how Karen Walsh's Cordelia escaped her sisters' heartlessness--particularly when all were raised on Narelle Sisson's industrial-military shipyard set of rusted iron, copper and pvc.

A speech impediment is appropriately ironic for Ray Dooley's plain-spoken Fool, while Jeffery West fits the bill as the foppish Oswald. Michael Babbitt's serviceable villany befits Cornwall, Regan's husband, while Charles Parnell makes a blunt, amusing Edmond.

Since I was warned before going in that the first act of the "First Folio" version alone lasts a little under two hours, and the whole production clocks at just over three hours, I should doubtlessly say something here about the work's length.

I shall: Go anyway. It didn't seem like three hours in a theater--and certainly not three hours wasted.

The First Folio production was one of the most satisfying dramatic meals I've had in months. It arguably establishes a new standard for the region. Those starving for good theater really shouldn't miss it. EndBlock

Openings & Reviews

OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
The Graduate, Broadway Series South, BTI Center, through Jan. 25, 834-4000; Ailey II, Page Auditorium, Jan. 26, 684-4444; The Umbilical Brothers, Stewart Auditorium, NCSU, Jan. 22, 515-1100; Whoever Finds This I Love You, Anima Dance, PSI Theater, Durham Arts Council, Jan. 24, 3 & 8 pm, 560-2787; Byuioo, A New Musical, Chapel Hill High School, Jan. 23-25, www.byuioo.com.

REVIEWS:
***1/2 50! Evolution of a Butch Lesbian, Laurie Wolf, Manbites Dog Theater. Whadaya mean, age gracefully? Monologist Laurie Wolf would rather take prisoners, and did in a two-night run which closed nine days shy of the Big Five-O. The latest installment in Wolf's ongoing life narrative finds her with no shortage of things to protest: lesbians who still don't know how to dress, the medical care industry, the Bush administration, and the physical reversals of age. Her satiric cabaret included an elegy for "My Tight Butt," and her politics were the centerpiece of a number of sketches. Still, Wolf's intensely personal stories about a father in hospice--and her unique, poetic embodiment of the condition of terminal agitation--were the emotional and ethical centerpiece of the evening. In all, they proved Wolf really works best when she's off the soapbox.

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