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Theater Review:

"KING LEAR" at Piven Theatre


It’s tempting for theater artists to catapult "King Lear" – William Shakespeare’s mammoth tragedy of the pagan British king who vainly demands outward displays of flattery from his three daughters and ultimately loses his kingdom – into a booming world of monsoons and thunder claps. But Piven Theatre’s unobtrusively "elemental" staging opts to place Lear on an intimate and human level in which the ruler must confront his own mortality.

Byrne Piven, the heralded founder of this respected Evanston theater, approaches Lear from an admirably subdued point of view. And instead of drawing attention to his complex character through bombastic posturing, he generously allows the ensemble to alternately support and taunt Lear. This rewarding but flawed production, directed by Byrne’s daughter Shira Piven, aims to bring this grandiose story down to earth – most pungently conveyed when Lear steps down from his Greek platform shoes and merges with the average humanity around him.

The play moves in a frenetic downspiral moments after Lear asks his daughters to declare their love and devotion to him. Goneril and Regan, both prompted by greed, insincerely extol him. But his beloved Cordelia refuses to give voice to her love, insisting that her actions speak louder than words. She loves her father and believes her proclamations serve no purpose beyond ego stroking. Lear, however, flies into a rage and exiles Cordelia. He divides his kingdom among his other daughters and their spouses only to be unwelcome in their homes.

The king and his fool wander into the desert; are battered by storms and destitution; and suffer endless antagonisms from the now-warring factions within the kingdom. But, although he undergoes a fervent transformation, Lear learns too late how genuinely Cordelia loved him. The three-hour-long play also covers the rocky terrain of the Earl of Gloucester’s deception at the hands of his bastard son, Edmund, who turns his father against his loyal and legitimate son, Edgar. In addition, the rebuked Earl of Kent anchors this saga as he follows Lear in disguise through all of his tribulations.

Shira Piven works very closely with Russian set/costume designer Danila Korogodsky. Together, they have fashioned a mesmerizing landscape of sand, rocks and stone warrior statues reminiscent of the mystical Celtic phenomenon of Stonehenge. Ritual engulfs this minimalist staging, which appears to be set on a burial mound, as the actors form a circle around Lear or drizzle sand through their fingers to indicate raindrops or enter from the far corners of the room, pause briefly and bow their heads before making their way to the stage.

The small stones also double as letters, suggesting that words can be as jagged as stones. And throughout the play, the performers keep bumping into rocks and kicking around dust to indicate their earthly weakness in the face of the omnipotent forces of nature. Korogodsky’s softly symbolic set carries on its own stinging conversation with the audience.

But, as a whole, Piven Theatre’s "King Lear" suffers from a few amateurish and undeveloped performances. Byrne Piven movingly illustrates Lear’s quiet descent into madness and regret. He is potently joined by the crisply focused Brooks Darrah as Kent. Yet F. David Roth in the pivotal role of the prescient Fool relies on clumsy physicality rather than bluntly timed delivery of his layered lines. His slipshod and slapstick portrayal undermines Lear’s devastating fall from grace.

Lawrence Grimm, an actor of astonishing range, endows the scheming Edmund with a bold mix of traitorous, tragic and sympathetic qualities. As his deceived brother, Edgar, James Vincent Meredith mingles innocence and strength in his highly textured performance. Unfortunately, Bernie Beck’s Gloucester never gets inside his character. He delivers lines with little variation – once again, undercutting the surrounding crush of human dignity.

Of the three sisters, only Gita Tanner’s jealous but torn Regan achieves the power her role demands. Marcia Reinhard’s ambitioius Goneril is perpetually peeved; while Joanne Underwood’s Cordelia is surprisingly weak.

But, overall, the Piven artists successfully wrap their arms around the essence of this devilishly difficult play and hold the audience captive in the process.•

"King Lear" runs through July 15 at Piven Theatre in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. Tickets: $16-$21. Call 847-866-8049.

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