King Lear, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. King Lear is a role that tests an actor’s soul. A strong performer, ready for the part, with the right seasoning and a good director can turn this beautiful but difficult tragedy into a sublime three-hour meditation on aging and death. But a weak actor, unready and poorly directed, will make us wonder why the play was ever written.
Greg Vinkler’s Lear in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s dreary production feels wrong from the start. Early on, when the character is still in full command of his power and his realm, Vinkler lacks majesty and authority. And later, when Lear has lost his kingdom, his family, and finally his mind, Vinkler plays him alternately as a blustering ham or a whiny coward. Neither interpretation is very moving.
Then again, few actors look good in this singularly undramatic production. One exception is Patrick Clear, whose performance as the Earl of Gloucester is so authoritative and rooted in the text he seems to have wandered in from some other, better production of the play. No stirring line, no exciting speech, no moment of high drama survives Barbara Gaines’s heavy-handed, paint-by-numbers direction. The first half is flat-out boring, and the scenes when Lear goes mad are unintelligible–even the powerful, poetic ending falls flat. I suspect the audience applauded as loudly as they did because their three-hour, ten-minute ordeal was finally over.