It’s never a good sign when you overhear several people saying that they don’t understand what’s going on during intermission at Shakespeare in the Park.
The Public Theater created the annual outdoor fest so that the Bard’s glorious repertoire would be free and accessible for all — and that means the crowd isn’t necessarily going to be made up of aficionados who have seen “King Lear” several times by now. Maybe they haven’t thought about the play since high school. Maybe they’re not familiar with the plot at all.
Daniel Sullivan’s surprisingly bare-bones production, which opened Aug. 2 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, does nothing to clarify the twists and turns of this unwieldy work, which clocks in at about three-and-a-half hours. The set offers nothing to unspool the complex tale, which sprawls between castles and heaths, from England to France, without much differentiation. The sisters Goneril (Annette Bening) and Raegan (Jessica Hecht) take their entrances from walkways that appear and disappear from opposite sides of the stage, spatially indicating their respective kingdoms. But it’s way too little visual guidance; minimal props and traditional costumes also fail to illuminate or make something special of this adaptation.
Thankfully, John Lithgow is a marvelous Lear; the actor has never shied away from taking roles that are larger than life — and a little bit kooky. He doesn’t quite match the simple profundity of Frank Langella at BAM earlier this year, but he does wash out the bad taste in our mouth from Sam Waterston’s screaming king, which he played at the Public in 2011. It looks like this particular nonprofit is just cursed; perhaps The Public Theater should go back to casually chatting about “Macbeth” backstage and ban mentioning “King Lear,” instead.
Notable roles in this 'King Lear'
Usually, the two evil sisters and their mutual love, the bastard Edmund (here played by Eric Sheffer Stevens) steal the show. In this “Lear,” the noble Edgar (Chukwudi Iwuji), who disguises himself as a lunatic to escape persecution from his father, offers the most memorable performance. He doesn’t take the play-acting over-the-top as Poor Tom, which is easy to do. Another standout that almost never gets attention was the Duke of Albany (Christopher Innvar), who bides his time to slowly reveal his true allegiances rather than feigning insanity or running off to start a war he isn’t sure he can win.
If you go
Through Aug. 17
81st St. at Central Park West
Find more theater reviews by following T. Michelle Murphy on Twitter: @TMichelleMurphy.