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Radio Review: The Dallas Theater Center’s ‘King Lear’

Abbey Siegworth, Steven Walters, Brian Mceleney and Stephen Berenson in King Lear. Photo by Karen Almond.

The Dallas Theater Center has opened King Lear, the last in its four-year series of Shakespeare plays. KERA’s Jerome Weeks wrote an earlier review to get it online as quickly as he could. Now this is the KERA radio review: It says this Lear is sharp and clear but it lacks the heights and depths a real tragedy needs.

  • KERA radio review:

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  • Extended online review here.
  • Today at noon on THINK, DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty and actor Brian McEleney discuss King Lear.

Actor Brian McEleney plays the title role in the Theater Center’s King Lear. In the opening scene, Lear announces he’s taking early retirement.

McEleney: “Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom: And ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age,

Conferring them on to younger strengths, while we,

Unburdened, crawl toward death.”

But then Lear makes the selfish demand that triggers everything else. He’ll decide who gets what land based on his daughters’ public declarations of love for him. When daughter Cordelia refuses to play along, Lear explodes in rage.

But as you can hear, McEleney started out sounding cranky. Add his shaking hands and Lear’s descent into madness, and it seems director Kevin Moriarty has shifted Shakespeare’s massive tragedy into a drama about Alzheimer’s. Our treatment of the elderly and mentally ill are real concerns, and you may find yourself moved to pity by this production. But a tragedy has to have a tragic hero, and a tragic hero is going to take a fall. So he’ll need some grandeur or majesty to start with. And McEleney sounds more annoying than noble.

It’s unfortunate because, later, McEleney is truly funny and touching when Lear rediscovers Cordelia’s love:

McEleney: “Come! Let’s away to prison! [laughter]

We too alone will sing like birds i’ the cage

When you shall ask of me a blessing, I’ll kneel down,

And ask of thee forgiveness.”

This King Lear is a co-production with Trinity Rep in Providence, Rhode Island. But it’s much like Moriarty’s previous efforts with Shakespeare – he uses a very streamlined script. I’ve objected to such changes in the past. But here, Moriarty’s taken a dense drama and made it admirably quick and clear. Almost anyone should be able to follow it.

One reason Moriarty’s approach is attractive here is that he doesn’t distract us with big, jazzy gimmicks. In previous plays, he’s added dance tunes and airplane crashes. Moriarty’s concerned with making these works contemporary and accessible to anyone who’s never seen a Shakespeare play. It’s an understandable concern but it’s led him at times to opt for simple emotions and social concerns over dramatic depth.

There certainly are attention-grabbers in Lear as well. But they focus and not distract. The king rages in a storm, and designer Michael McGarty’s set delivers some impressive special effects. And Lear runs naked – except when it’s a matinee performance for schools. These dramatic choices bring out the human frailty and wrenching turmoil in Shakespeare’s play.

As for the others in the cast, Christie Vela, Angela Brazil and Lee Trull are admirable in the ways they embody villains without turning melodramatic. Stephen Walters plays Edgar, the good son of Lear’s minister, Gloucester. He’s fairly bland until, like Lear, Edgar escapes the storm and rediscovers a family tie.

Walters:  “Welcome, then, thou unsubstantial air that I embrace

The wretch that thou has blown unto the worst

Fears nothing from thy blasts.”

Kay: “Away, get thee away.”

Walters: “But who comes here?”

Who comes is Gloucester, Edgar’s blinded, beaten mother. That’s how devastating Shakespeare’s drama is. Something worse is always coming. Gloucester is traditionally played by a man, but Moriarty has cast Phyllis Kay in the role. The gender switch is representative of the Theater Center’s Lear. It’s a clever, inclusive change. But I wish it – and I wish Moriarty’s other decisions — added even more weight.

Because this Lear doesn’t devastate the way it should.