Mary English’s magnificent set design, all wooden and ancient-looking, makes one nearly giddy with anticipation that Pioneer Theatre Company’s production of “King Lear” will be equally impressive. But, O cruel fate! Most of the acting is as wooden as the set, turning this very human tragedy into a pastiche of scenes and events.
It’s a rather odd situation, but we can easily divide the performers into two groups: the ones who seem like they are portraying real characters with real emotions, and the ones who, rather than speaking lines, always seem to be just delivering speeches, completely detached from everyone around them.
The former group can be counted on one hand: Lear (an authoritative William Leach), Kent (the always-reliable Max Robinson), Gloucester (Richard Mathews, old and sympathetic), Edgar (a focused and multi-faceted John Leonard Thompson) and Edmund (the sneeringly sinister Jonathan Hammond).
The story: English King Lear, aging and arrogant, seeks to divide his kingdom among his three daughters before he dies. First, though, he wants their public pronouncements of how much they love him. Goneril (Alison Edwards) and Regan (Joyce Cohen), both cartoonishly conniving without any apparent motive, do some flowery speechifying and fool their proud old man. The honest-hearted Cordelia (Krista Hoeppner), however, merely speaks the truth: She loves Lear like any daughter would love her dad.
Enraged that Cordelia has not worshipped him the way her sisters did, Lear takes away her dowry and banishes her. The king of France (Ward L. Wright) still marries her, and they are a fitting couple, as Wright over-acts (thank goodness he only gets a couple scenes), and Hoeppner is melodramatic and weepy, treating every line she speaks as though it were the Gettysburg Address.
Meanwhile, Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund, living up to the title of “bastard” in every possible sense, plots to fool his father into thinking his good son, Edgar, is against him. He succeeds, and Gloucester rejects Edgar and embraces Edmund, which is exactly the opposite of what he should do.
Thus we have the parallel stories of Lear and Gloucester, both having foolishly cast off the child who loved them most and living to regret their mistakes. In the hands of a synergistic cast and director, the play can exude, even in its many tragic turns, warmth and intimacy, even hope. There is much to be said about unwavering loyalty and forgiveness.
But here, led by Charles Morey, the characters talk to each other a lot, yet rarely connect. Even the many deaths come off bad, usually involving an unconvincing stab, a campy “I am slain!,” and a slump to the ground.
The few great performances really are great — from the deliciously evil Edmund to the feeble Gloucester — and they almost carry the show. But not quite. The whole story seems hollow, the characters empty, and the show is, to paraphrase another Shakespeare play, full of sound and fury and signifying very little.
Two very well-dressed women were sitting next to me, and one of them was the Applause Coordinator. When the curtain lifted, revealing the gorgeous set, a mild gasp and some "oohs" and "aahs" could be heard through the audience. That wasn't enough for the Applause Coordinator, though. She started clapping, and she was a good seven or eight claps in before anyone in the audience joined her, and even then, it was only about half the audience. She did the same thing when it came time for intermission: the first one clapping, and well ahead of everyone else.