A Japanese-flavored `Lear'. Suzuki's adaptation uses Noh and Kabuki styles

Oh good, more deconstructionist Shakespeare. Tinkering with the Bard is the badge of courage among America's more serious regional theaters.

This season, four of those theaters - Milwaukee Repertory, StageWest here in Springfield, Berkeley Repertory, and Washington's Arena Stage - have imported a master tinkerer.

Tadashi Suzuki, the renowned Japanese director, is traveling the country with his adaptation of ``King Lear'' (which plays at StageWest through May 15). Performed by an ensemble culled from the four participating theaters, the venture marks an unprecedented collaboration among the American companies as well as Mr. Suzuki's English-language debut. (The director's own Suzuki Company of Toga has performed frequently in Europe and the United States, including a 1984 Japanese-language presentation of ``The Trojan Women'' at the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival.)

Now in ``The Tale of Lear,'' Suzuki has adapted Shakespeare's sprawling tragedy into a taut, 100-minute abstract. The production, initially performed by Suzuki's company in Japan two years ago, might just as easily be retitled (with apologies to New York's Wooster Group) ``Lear ... Just the High Points.''

Not content to restage Western classics with simple directorial eclecticism, Suzuki has scissored Shakespeare's text to suit his own theatrical purposes. The director, who founded his acting company more than 20 years ago, has previously clipped and pruned the works of such Greek tragedians as Euripedes, Sophocles, and Aeschylus. Suzuki stages the trimmed texts using his unique blend of traditional Kabuki and Noh techniques, plus a smattering of avant-garde approaches. The result is a highly stylized, highly physicalized theatrical hybrid.

For ``The Tale of Lear,'' Suzuki has not only discarded the filler - what filler Shakespeare wrote - but he has reconceived the play's entire structure. Instead of an external narrative chronicling the decline and fall of an aged monarch, Suzuki gives us the internal landscape of a man's mind. It is terrain no less imaginative for this mobius-strip reversal. This is a Lear already mad - and in Suzuki's updated version, living in a nursing home. The play's events - the kingdom usurpers, the family back-stabbers - become the imaginative musings of the Old Man who is being read to by The Nurse, a.k.a. The Fool.

And Suzuki's minimalist staging - almost balletic performances on a nearly bare stage - reinforces this stripped-down inversion. Across a stage punctuated only by a thronelike chair and slashing fingers of light and shadow, the uniformed Nurse silently approaches her ward, as he slumps in his chair. She (or rather he, for Suzuki has used only male actors here in keeping with Greek, Kabuki, and Elizabethan stage traditions) affects a rolling, slow-motion walk evocative of both Noh and silent-movie techniques. It is a hypnotic and humorous style, a mime-like manifestation of character that is the essence of Suzuki's theatrical methodology.

From this rather ``Nutcracker''-ish opening - the Nurse beginning to read - the real reverie begins. Swathed in kimono-like costumes (which have been cut and rearranged by Suzuki to resemble Elizabethan tunics), the actors silently glide on en masse: There is no upper body movement; only the legs and feet (either bare or in the traditional tabi, white bifurcated socks) do the work.

It is a tightly choreographed style that is balletic, operatic, and always intensely physical - even down to the mannered vocalizing. Suzuki has described it as an approach that ``makes the whole body speak.''

To the untutored eye, it tends to look like theater performed by Mme. Tussaud's Wax Museum. One minute it is mesmerizing; the next minute such rigid formality seems laughable. (One thing that clearly doesn't work: Handel's syrupy ``Largo'' poured over the production at such high-decibel level as to become aural bombast.) Even at the curtain call, the actors never broke form. Only Gloucester's heath scene and Lear's mad scene (which Suzuki boldy stages with Lear in a laundry hamper) allow for any suppleness of form and feeling, thanks, in large measure, to the strength and fluidity of actors Tom Hewitt (Lear) and Matthew Loney (Edgar).

If such choreographed visuals have a certain arresting power, they cumulatively change - and, in this reviewer's opinion, shortchange - the play's emotional power.

Suzuki has described his deconstructionist adaptation as a theatrical exploration of ``the disintegration of groups,'' the inevitable ``decay of relationships.'' But the director's telescoping and tableaulike staging suggest a focus not on individual character and behavior but on suspended states of mind and emotions and their relative postures and juxtapositions. If such an approach is consistent with the production's internalized narrative, it is also a distancing one that ultimately mutes the play's tragic impact.

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