Stacy Keach, King Lear, D.C. 2009

Stacy Keach as King Lear, Howard Witt as The Fool

(Stacy Keach as Lear, Howard Witt as The Fool; photo Steve Mencher)

The king’s three daughters have a chance to claim their inheritance, as “King Lear” opens. He’s stepping down. To get their fair share of the kingdom, all they have to do is tell daddy how much they love him.

Goneril and Regan have been practicing. They love him madly, truly, deeply, and extravagantly. More than their own husbands, they tell him. More than life itself. But when young Cordelia, the third sister, is asked what she has to say to best her sisters, she can add no more than “nothing.”

“Nothing,” says the king, “will come of nothing.”

Shakespeare, in this melancholy guise, is an existentialist, a pessimist, a man for whom tragedy is not complete unless it’s accompanied by murder and madness. A man at home in the land of nothing.

Director Robert Falls knows this side of Shakespeare. The artistic director of Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Tony-winning director of several of its triumphant transfers to Broadway, Falls has set “King Lear” in Eastern Europe, as an untethered state drifts into chaos, anarchy, and ethnic cleansing. He has found commonalities in the breakup of Lear’s kingdom and the bloodshed that ensued after Marshal Tito died in 1980 or the uncertainty after Romania’s Ceausescu was executed.

Count me among those who passionately hate Shakespeare that’s updated for the sake of variety or “engagement” with modern audiences. The conceits usually fall apart by scene two, when you wonder why these modern folks are spouting iambic pentameter. So why does this production work?

I’d say it’s because of the absolute conviction of the actors and production team. Their passion and commitment are bent to the common work of telling this spellbinding story. We all have fathers, of course. And for those of us with daughters, don’t we crave their love, their acceptance, their agreement to carry on our hopes and dreams in ways more ineffable than sons could?

Did I mention that I saw “King Lear” on Father’s Day? Robert Falls, perhaps having heard that I’d suggested running our “King Lear” story at AARP on Father’s Day grinned at me conspiratorially when he saw me, asked if I was having a good time, and assured me he was. “Father’s Day,” he muttered, eyes gleaming. Couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or sharing a joke.

Yes, a good time was had by all. As Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out like so much troublesome jelly. As Lear slides into madness and hopelessness. As, one after another, the characters in the play are shot, stabbed, garroted, raped, and murdered.

So what’s good about it? What are we “enjoying?” First is craft. It’s quite a kick to see Stacy Keach stretching himself to explore every cranny of this aging monarch. He is by turns wily, furious, absent, volcanic, and always believable and human. It’s the performance of a lifetime for a man who has had a career that never moved in a straight line. MacBird, Hamlet, Macbeth, Mike Hammer, and the voice that launched a thousand documentaries. Here he seems at home on stage, after wowing Chicago in this role in 2006, and surviving a stroke last spring. He’s alive, and loving it.

The second great pleasure of this production is to be in the presence of what I might call a Chicago school of ensemble acting. I’ve been enjoying this tsunami of energy since my days in Chicago in the early 1970s, and most recently in the fabulous work of Mary Zimmerman. Chicago’s best directors and the actors they work with seem to operate at a fever pitch; they trust each other to be brave and unselfish, and turn themselves inside out in public.

Did I mention that Bob Falls is a madman and a genius? He knows that “Lear” – a play about love and pain, about seeing and nothing, about power and corruption – is expressed in every syllable of language on the page, and every gesture made by every person on stage. There is no wasted sound or motion in this “Lear.” It moves like a runaway freight train. The work he does in animating “Lear” is work all directors do. He just does it as well as anyone working today.

This particular train, by the way, is on the road to Hell, where we are deposited, spent and weary at the end of the evening.

Michael Kahn’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, presenting “Lear” in the nation’s capital through the end of July, has been warning Washington for months about this show. Expect nudity and extraordinary violence, they said. In fact, they were so concerned about possible offense to the unwary that the show comes literally with a warning sticker that it is for “Mature Audiences Only.” We’ll pray it finds them.

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