Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier, 800 W. Grand Ave. Tickets: 312-595-5600; www.chicagoshakes.com; $48-$78. Runs through: Nov. 9
Of all Shakespeare's plays, his ranting-in-the-rain scene in King Lear is unsurpassed for sheer Wagnerian spectacle, so nobody can blame Chicago Shakespeare Theater's for deciding to open their 2014 season with flourish and fanfare. The title role also constitutes an irresistible star turn for mature actors, so who can argue with the casting of Larry Yandowhose credits include both Scrooge and Scaras western literature's most abusive Dad? Oh, and how about an innovative central aural metaphor drawn from Frank Sinatra's "Where Do You Go?" to symbolize our monarch's gradual slide into Alzheimer's-linked dementia?
This fable of fathers who come to regret surrendering their power to untrustworthy progeny is sturdy enough to support some heavy analogiesthe entire Balkan Wars, recentlybut not when forced to stagger under too many disparate similes. For example, we meet Lear as he scrolls through tracks from the Ol' Blue Eyes canon, childishly flinging the remote to the floor until he is soothed by the complacent lyrics of "World on a String." This, coupled with the Dior fashions worn by his daughters ( whose names he sometimes forgets ) hint at the 1950s, as The Fool's tweedy plus-fours do the English countryside. However, by the time Kent disguises himself in biker-leathers, Edgar dons 21st-century sweatgear and armies arrive uniformed in modern body armor and Uzisdid I mention the David Hockney male nude that Regan hangs in the palace?we are as nebulously located as Lear himself.
The visual disconnection takes its toll on the dramatic integration as well. Yando delivers an operatic portrayalroaring like a wounded bear, swapping foozly patter with blind Gloucester in a Beckettian wasteland ( complete with lone tree ), keening in inarticulate anguish over the lifeless Cordelia before making an aria of his final lament. So grandly, in fact, does the spotlight shine on his performanceand it's never anything but an actor performing, bravura notwithstandingthat only Ross Lehman's Fool and Kevin Gudahl's Kent can be said to truly share the stage with him, all other characters seeming to occupy another dimension altogether.
Was this production originally conceived as an ensemble effort before it evolved into The Larry Yando Show?
Had director Barbara Gaines envisioned a quietly pensive interpretationmirroring Sinatra's inspirational songbefore the volume got turned up to eleven? Did rushed preparation dictate that subordinate personnel rehearse separately from the principals, or that special effectsfalling walls, overhead sprinklers, urban-camo curtainsbe recycled from past seasons? Whatever its flaws, there's no denying the heroic Yando's delivering 200 percent and more; however, he can't do it alone.