The Boston Phoenix
June 25 - July 2, 1998

[Dance Reviews]

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Lear today

Olympia Dukakis unveils a work in progress

by Carolyn Clay

THE LEAR PROJECT. Based on King Lear, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Dennis Krausnick. Set and costume design by John Pennoyer. Lighting by Michael Giannitti. With Olympia Dukakis, Tod Randolph, Virginia Ness Ray, Christina Zorich, Tina Packer, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Michael Hammond. At the Orpheum Theatre-Foxborough (closed) and at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, through June 28.

Lear "Reason not the need," thunders Lear when queried about the necessity for his train of 100 knights. Heeding that advice, I'll not question the need for a Queen Lear. In any event, Olympia Dukakis is not the first woman to assay this Everest of roles; Ruth Maleczech and Kristin Linklater, to name two, have preceded her. But I do have questions about The Lear Project, as the new Shakespeare & Company/Foxborough Regional Center for the Performing Arts work in progress based on Shakespeare's King Lear is called. If this is a work in progress, how does a critic respond to it? And is it fair to charge members of a test audience $32.50 to see something half-baked? Most seriously, is it justifiable to use the greatest play ever written as essentially a stepping stone to a very different, albeit analogous, work?

The answer to that last question probably depends on what you come up with. Right now The Lear Project is very much a work in progress, shaky on its feet, still in the midst of its own questioning rehearsal process. Actors are trying things on, thinking about choices; the impression is that the play has been taken apart, as rightly happens in rehearsal, but not yet put back together and fired. So The Lear Project, only in part because it has undergone a radical script-ectomy (most of the Gloucester subplot is missing), lacks shape and propulsion. It does not rise to peaks of revelation and despair, then heartbreakingly ebb, as Shakespeare's great tragedy does -- though the most effective scene, and the one in which the title character's new gender is most acutely felt, is the penultimate one, with its tableau of a mother, all the life gone out of her, cradling the corpse of her child. "I am old now," Dukakis's Lear intones with a guttural flatness that conveys something beyond pain.

Elsewhere the actress, and the project, are less successful. To start with, The Lear Project was evidently conceived as an attempt to re-examine King Lear in light of the particular, tangled relations of mothers and daughters. "What's really exciting," director Dennis Krausnick is quoted as saying, "is the shift in thinking of Lear as a man to Lear as a woman." But The Lear Project, at this stage of its development, seems less concerned with the gender of the power-stripped monarch than with the problems of aging and, for adult children, of dealing with aging, irrational elders. Dukakis's Lear is more a depressed Everywoman than an eminence struggling with encroaching madness. And Goneril and Regan, as reinterpreted by Tod Randolph and Virginia Ness Ray, are not villainous or even bad daughters but alarmed and concerned offspring taking a tough-love approach to an increasingly impossible parent. Unfortunately, this runs counter to their lines: for Randolph's Goneril to weep openly as Lear unreasonably disinherits Cordelia, and for Ray's Regan to register dismay, doesn't dovetail with the cold sisterly farewells that follow.

Dukakis's depressive attack on Lear is deliberate; she is playing her as a woman who has given up not just on rule but on life. But if so, why does she react so violently to Cordelia's failure to declare publicly her devotion? The initial scene of the play, in which Lear makes the arbitrary and tragic mistake that will bring her down, does take on an interesting twist in The Lear Project: Lear seems less a vainglorious victim of hubris than a woman in power, afraid that backing down from a decision will make her subject to charges of female weakness, of having exercised "a woman's prerogative."

Yet Dukakis's Lear has none of the character's furious majesty, against which his/her foray into madness and the elements takes on such pathos. She's whiny (and sometimes giggly) rather than raging. Dukakis is an estimable actress with an admirable willingness to take risks. But her Lear lacks stature, and the crucial scene in the storm, where she discovers the bare truth of her humanity, is wobbly (how can anyone act such stuff when unsure of her lines?). It's also oddly directed, with less emphasis on Lear's cracking and epiphany than on the Fool's Three Stooges-like whacking of Poor Tom with a plastic water bottle.

The production's approach to Lear's Fool is certainly daring -- and occasionally touching. Shakespeare & Company artistic honcho Tina Packer plays the jester as a combination bawdy servant and companion to the queen, a cross between Juliet's Nurse and a holy fool, winking and lifting her skirts yet radiating a wacky beatitude as she wanders the heath with her plastic-bag hat and bottle club. She also -- in terms of The Lear Project's exploration of troubling questions about contemporary care of the elderly -- stands in for the paid caretaker who often takes the place of family. But some of what Dukakis and Packer get up to is jarring, as is Packer's substituting "Auntie Lear" for Shakespeare's "Nuncle" in addressing the queen. I kept expecting the monarch to "charm the husks right off of the corn, Mame!"

Randolph's Goneril, though arguably wrongheaded, is arresting, and Ray brings a snippish exasperation to Regan. The men are played by Johnny Lee Davenport (fine as loyal Kent) and Michael Hammond (very eccentric as Poor Tom, quietly affecting as the King of France and Duke of Albany). As Cordelia, Dukakis's own daughter, Christina Zorich, is sweet but lightweight; she reacts to her mother in the reconciliation scene with sunny, indulgent laughter. Right now, The Lear Project is of an awkward length -- too long to be played without an intermission but trailing off in the second half. That seems easily remedied by sticking to the declared guns of creating a work about "Lear and her daughters." Scratch the Goneril-and-Regan girl fight over Gloucester's bastard son, Edmund.

"Nothing comes of nothing," Lear threatens Cordelia when the favorite daughter fails to put her heart into her mouth. Strong words, those. But sometimes, even in the most elaborately considered of projects, not much comes of a great deal.