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Review: Glenda Jackson is Wickedly Fun in Sam Gold's Surprisingly Comic Take on Shakespeare's KING LEAR

In recalling the great comedies penned by William Shakespeare, classics like TWELFTH NIGHT, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM and the one about all the errors have been making audiences bust out in laughter for hundreds of years.

King Lear
Glenda Jackson
(Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

But King Lear? Certainly one of the English language's great tragedies, with the title character's vanity coupled with his descent into madness providing great older actors a chance to fully display their dramatic skills.

But judging from the consistent laughter filling the Cort Theatre at Tuesday night's preview performance, director Sam Gold has found King Lear's funny bone, at least for the two-hour long first act of his high-spirited revival, by elevating the level of reality just a tad more than you might expect. Not into camp, but more of a summer movie adventure level, grounded into enough reality not to undercut the emotional legitimacy of the brutal consequences that permeate the production's final third.

In the middle of it all is a wickedly fun performance by Glenda Jackson, as the self-centered tyrant who just wants to be lavished with words of love from his three daughters, offering, upon relinquishing the duties of his monarchy, the largest third of his realm to the one who can express her devotion with the most extravagant effusion.

Framed by set designer Miriam Buether in a garishly adorned palace room made up of solid gold walls and surrounded by subjects decked out in contemporary formal wear, Jackson's Lear cackles with delight while accepting praise and feasts on the playwright's words with broad elocution accented with fierce physical gestures.

A string quartet stationed in a corner enhances moments with a score by Philip Glass. This includes a sinister-sounding theme that builds in intensity whenever Lear speaks a grand pronouncement.

As oldest daughter Goneril, Elizabeth Marvel dutifully plays along with her father's game, barely hiding her exasperation after decades of his nonsense. But she lets her guard down in a wildly staged sex scene with Edmund (slick and sardonic Pedro Pascal) -- the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester (hearty and humorous Jayne Houdyshell) -- who is plotting to seize power as the monarchy divides. Marvel's instruction to Pascal, "wear this," supplies the most jaw-dropping "did-she-really-do-that?" moment of the season.

Aisling O'Sullivan's Regan is truly her father's daughter, staying controlled most of the time but bursting into vicious displays of grandeur as her thirst for power takes over. Russell Harvard, who is deaf, strikes an imposing presence as her husband, the Duke of Cornwall. As he signs his lines, Michael Arden, playing his aide, speaks them with businesslike efficiency.

King Lear
Pedro Pascal and Jayne Houdyshell
(Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)

Ruth Wilson plays it straight as youngest daughter Cordelia, who expresses her love for her father with unadorned simplicity, and charms with a Chaplin-like interpretation of the king's Fool. (Or is it Cordelia disguised as the Fool?) A well-timed flash of the character's socks sneaks a bit of political commentary into the proceedings. (Many in Tuesday night's audience also reacted to Gloucester's line "'Tis the times' plague, when madmen lead the blind" as if it were a contemporary commentary.)

Matthew Maher is very amusing, playing Goneril's steward Oswald with a snarky attitude and a cowardly streak. The great classical actor John Douglas Thompson (perhaps we'll see a Broadway King Lear starring him one day) is a pleasure to watch as the Earl of Kent, a voice of reason who, after being banished by the king, returns in working class disguise.

As the political power struggle intensifies and the body count begins to rise, Gold guides his actors to a smooth transition into the tension and tragedy of its climax. Jackson's Lear is no less pitiable in the play's final moments than he might have been with a less presentational performance. But for audiences, the journey getting to those final moments is a just a little more kick-back enjoyable than usual.

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