For about a hundred and fifty years King Lear was considered so bleak and unproducible that theaters regularly put on a bastardized version which dulled Shakespeare's clear sense of royal frailty and tragedy by tacking on a crowd-pleasing happy ending. Nahum Tate's "adaptation" had the old king running a sword through two of his enemies, hearing about the poisoning deaths of Regan and Goneril, and settling down with Cordelia to rule Britain in his sunset years. The Tate tradition ended -- happily -- in the 1840s. But it's revived, in a sense, by every modern director who tries to get too clever with Shakespeare by imposing something new on his plays that doesn't rise naturally from the text. The version of Lear on now at the California Shakespeare Festival doesn't have that problem. If anything, it lacks ideas, which is almost -- but not quite -- as bad.
The play ends sadly, of course, but I mean that in two different ways. First, Richard Risso's exhausted Lear gives out his lines of impossible regret with all the pathos proper to a dying king, and you come away feeling that the challenge so many theaters avoided for 150 years has been met by someone alive and well. But the closing cadences uttered over Lear's body -- by Edgar, Kent, and Albany -- break no ice. Like a lot of the language in Denis Arndt's production, they're sadly unfelt, and come off as vaguely antique gabbling instead of trenchant, sonorous verse.
But that's the trouble with Lear. The language is like a cathedral, and if an actor can't fill its vaults and catacombs it just sits there smelling old. It's true that Risso can howl for the heavens as the king, but too much of the rest of the cast just reads lines. Jonathan Haugen is a stiff Albany; David deSantos is a wooden Edgar (though he loosens up as Tom o' Bedlam); and Stephen Klum overplays Kent, especially in the first scene, when he puts an unusual amount of effort into being the court's voice of reason. "Reverse thy doom," he warns the king, "And in thy best consideration check/ This hideous rashness." He's right, but you wish he didn't feel compelled to yell.
A handful of actors at the play's core, though, save the production. Patrick Kerr's scarecrow Fool chides and sings in a deliberately dry, American voice, atonal and flat, landing most of his punch lines like a little boy. He wears a big brown vest, a floppy coxcomb, and what looks like tattered burlap for a shirt. All I missed was some hint that the Fool might be a stand-in for Cordelia, a mysterious imp leading Lear back to his true affections.
Cordelia herself is unevenly played by Sarah Overman, but Philip Davidson's Gloucester finds a strong warning tone in his early speeches ("Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves"), and in general holds up his lines without being as commanding or resonant as the king. Paul Sulzman's Edmund looks like the "proper" young man admired by Kent in the opening scene, and speaks with authority; but he never seems less than proper, even while scheming for Gloucester's estate. Michael Storm does a good Oswald -- impudent and servile, slightly fey -- and provides comic relief when the Fool isn't around.
Marcia Pizzo, as Goneril, conjures a snakelike lust for evil opposite Regan (Allison Marich), who I'm afraid comes off as shrill. But both sisters have a wardrobe problem: They look like scheming bitches from Melrose Place time-warped into Lear's pre-Christian England. The men wear leather, fur, and tartan scarves -- your basic medieval wardrobe -- while the two daughters wear tight dresses made of black leatherette pieced with colored fabric. These costumes, by Beaver Bauer, resemble dashed-off Mizrahi sketches of something that would say "Dark Ages" for the autumn collection, not evening wear for heiresses of Lear.
The other strange innovation in this play is a ship's rigging strung over center stage. The ropes form a squarish arch during the ordinary court scenes, and then are loosened and crisscrossed for the storm on the heath to suggest rain, and a maybe a listing ship of state. This feels like a half-baked idea. A cloudburst on the wild heath is as time-tested and evocative a metaphor as the English theater can boast, so what's the point of adding another image to Lear's madness? I mean, the man isn't Ahab. The result is that the storm scene, with its measly rifle-shots of thunder and a reined-in performance from Risso, falls short of calling down the wrath of Lear's pagan gods on his hoary, misguided head.
Otherwise, though, Risso can be a force of nature. He intones well, moves with the right balance of bewilderment and dignity, and raves nicely at his daughters -- "O Lear, Lear, Lear! Beat at this gate that let this folly in/ And thy dear judgment out!" He pounds his head and makes you believe he'll really lose it on the heath. He doesn't, but his transformation afterward into a regretful, flower-wearing old coot has the heart-stabbing sense of permanent loss. The scene on the imaginary cliff, where Gloucester tries to commit suicide, actually has more anguish than any moment on the heath. "Look, look, a mouse!" says Lear, no longer worried about his kingdom. "... O, well flown, bird!" The old man's change is complete, and Risso moves the play almost by himself to a compellingly grief-stricken end.
Denis Arndt is no modern-day Nahum Tate, thank God. His production is plain, and the few departures from tradition work so awkwardly that it's a relief not to see more of them. But caution and restraint run against the grain of the play, and there's something sad about a Lear that leaves you largely undisturbed.