Cornish Playhouse at Seattle Center, 733-8222, seattleshakespeare.org. $25–$48. Runs Wed.–Sun. Ends May 17.
In this imagining of King Lear’s famous opening scene, in which the doomed monarch inventories the relative magnitudes of his three daughters’ love for him, he rocks a peacock-hued tunic coat. Relish the fleeting sight, as it is the only dash of vibrant color you will see before the last moments of this drab production. To pay for the conceptual gambit of stripping the king’s tinct along with his title, director Sheila Daniels and costumer Melanie Burgess tax the audience with a gloomy palette of black, white, gray, and beige on a similarly depleted set (designed by Daniels and Craig Wollam). Seattle Shakespeare Company’s fine acting is in ample evidence, but this overly cerebral take on a cathartic tale made me want to run outside and gasp for the saturated hues of messy real life.
Dan Kremer’s Lear, tall and sardonic, does more with the humorous and witty situations than with the tragic ones. This ruler seems most fully engaged when ridiculing others, while the windy heath—sound design by Rob Witmer—and other adversities hardly sway him. Beneath him, the characters soon sift into two camps: supporters of nefarious sisters Goneril (Linda K. Morris) and Regan (Debra Pralle); and supporters of Lear and exiled Cordelia (Elinor Gunn). Among the latter, Todd Jefferson Moore offers an endearingly earthy Fool, while Amy Thone’s deadpan staccato makes her Kent—here a woman disguised as a man—a glib cartoon. The most memorable performance, though, is from Eric Riedmann as evil Edmund, who narrates his intentions to the audience like a stand-up comedian and puts hilariously inappropriate moves on Regan and Goneril—as if they’re his S&M slaves.
O, would that the sad parts were this effective! After the three-hour investment, with two intermissions, we need Lear to carry dead Cordelia to us! Did Michelangelo have Mary simply stand and look at her dead son Jesus for his Pieta? Yet for some reason—a bad back, maybe?—Kremer pulls Cordelia in on a trolley cart, like luggage. I liked that form of locomotion during Daniels’ 2009 production of Abe Lincoln in Illinois at Intiman, where the president was affectingly scooted offstage into eternity on a castered podium. Here the device eases Lear’s burden but lessens the tragic impact. In compensation, Jessica Trundy’s lighting yields a slice of hopeful pink on the horizon. But Lear-sized agony should be served dripping raw, by hand.