Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Phone: 312-443-3800; $20-$75
Through: Oct. 22
BY SCOTT C. MORGAN
The body count at the end of King Lear is high. In director Robert Falls' modern-dress and ultra-violent Goodman Theatre production of Shakespeare's towering tragedy, he makes an overemphatic effort to pile on even more corpses.
Every off-stage death gets dragged onstage here and illustrated with gut-wrenching pain and plenty of flailing about.
And though much of the sentimentality in the Bard's text is bluntly torn out, Falls finds time to include a battle interlude of dozens of plastic-wrapped war dead being dragged on and dumped into a mass grave. It's a disquieting ( and drawn-out ) sequence that recalls wartime horrors from any era.
Although we like to think that we're far removed from the brutal violence of Shakespeare's day, the fact that we're still encountering war atrocities today in Sudan and Iraq makes Falls' modernized King Lear very relevant and critical of the times we live in.
Here, Lear ( Stacy Keach ) appears to be a retiring mafia head or corrupt CEO cutting up his kingdom for his three socialite daughters ( with Kate Arrington's Regan resembling a trashy Paris Hilton ) . It ends up being an abusive transfer of power based upon lies and hubris, causing the vain king to go mad as his power and dignity get literally stripped away. ( Note that the production has some surprising and shocking nudity. )
Many modernizations are complimentary to Shakespeare, particularly Regan's drug-fueled party posse ( the unconscionable eye-gouging of the Earl of Gloucester making terrifying sense since Chris Genebach's Cornwall is tweaked up on hard drugs ) . Other Shakespearean standbys struggle to make sense in this modernized context. ( Howard Witt's very artsy and wry Fool resembles a veteran Brechtian actor in perpetual whiteface makeup—an odd cohort for a tough guy like Lear. )
Much of the Goodman's King Lear entertainingly works. But on the whole, it feels that Falls and company are trying too hard to make Shakespeare hypercool by likening characters with tabloid celebrities or by injecting outrageous violence and sex typical of Quentin Tarantino films like Pulp Fiction or HBO's The Sopranos.
Despite the occasional missteps in production design ( like Ana Kuzmanic's final comic-book villainess costume for Kim Martin-Cotton's Goneril ) or campy and histrionic bits that undercut the drama ( like the culinary end to one of Gloster's eyes ) , the acting is consistently solid and frequently brilliant.
Stacy Keach tears into Lear, lumbering around with seething anger as this once-powerful man lashes out at those diminishing his influence. Keach also gives a hint of his future doddering mind-wandering from the start ( which helps explain his sudden banishment of Laura Odeh as good daughter Cordelia ) .
If Jono Roberts as Gloucester's villainous bastard son, Edmund, and Joaquin Torres as the legitimate son, Edgar, both seem a bit one-note, blame the decision to cut most of their reconciliatory text. Although we get explanations behind their actions, their actual motivations don't appear too credible.
Strong supporting work comes from Steve Pickering's reliable Kent and Edward Gero's blinded Earl of Gloucester. Dieterich Gray, as the white-boy hip-hop messenger Oswald, also gets great laughs with his puffed up self-importance.
Just why Falls has tackled and updated Lear for today might be gleaned from the play's final verse when a war-weary survivor says, 'Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.' Perhaps it's Falls' bleak way of admonishing the audience to voice their opinions when it comes to speaking out against injustices in the world. Heaven knows that with all the fear, lies and intimidation we face today, we need many more brave and honest voices to rise up and sing.