NEW YORK — KING LEAR
Play by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Adrian Hall.
At the Joseph Papp Public Theater through Feb. 18.
NOT long ago, the Joseph Papp Public Theater disappointed some of its patrons by abruptly ending its Film at the Public program after 17 years of service. In so doing, producer George C. Wolfe reduced the diversity of his theater by closing its doors to cinema and ending the contributions of Fabiano Canosa, one of the most respected and influential film programmers in the United States.
Following this sad event, it's ironic that "King Lear," the latest production in the Public's ongoing Shakespeare Marathon, features a star who's better known for his movie work than for his stage credentials. To be sure, F. Murray Abraham has a long list of theatrical roles under his belt. But his Oscar-winning portrayal of Mozart's rival, Salieri, in the film version of "Amadeus" is his best-known achievement, and his expressive face has appeared in pictures as varied as "Last Action Hero" and "Mighty Aphrodite."
Movies may not be important enough to grace the Public any longer, but movie stardom - rarely a hindrance to ticket sales - is apparently still welcome there.
This said, Abraham does a creditable job as Lear, considered by some to be the most challenging of all Shakespearean roles. His approach blends compulsive inner strength with a sort of craggy primitivism, making Lear less a tragically failed patriarch than a volcano of ill-controlled psychological energies, as explosive as the forces of nature that erupt around him during his maddened quest.
This is fully compatible with director Adrian Hall's conception of the play. Presented earlier at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., his production takes few liberties with Shakespeare's text beyond some judicious trimming, and adds hardly any of the postmodern touches beloved by some past participants in the Public's marathon.
Directness and simplicity are the keys, and while these don't make for an innovative evening, they preserve much of the play's bedrock emotional power. What surprises the production does contain are provided not by its infrequent departures from naturalistic staging - an odd buzzing noise during a nasty incident, impressionistic music from two onstage instrumentalists - but by the nudity and free-swinging violence that occasionally arise, most of it justified if not necessitated by Shakespeare's text.
Standout performers include Jared Harris and Rob Campbell as Edmund and Edgar, respectively; Jeffrey Wright as the Fool, as soulful in manner as he is twisted in body; Margaret Gibson and Elizabeth Marvel as Goneril and Regan, respectively; John Woodson as Kent; and Thomas Hill as Gloucester, although his portrayal of the character's physical pain is less convincing than his etching of the old man's earnest personality.
Absorbing if not trailblazing, "King Lear" marks the 30th installment of the Shakespeare Marathon, leaving a mere half-dozen to go before the Bard's whole canon has been performed. Still to come: "Antony and Cleopatra," the stirring "Henry V," and all three parts of "Henry VI," which will be presented in two installments, "Henry VIII," and "Timon of Athens."
These should be eagerly received at a time when Hollywood is priming audiences for Shakespeare in splashy efforts like "Richard III" and "Othello."