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September 14, 2007

TT: A showy Lear

As promised, today's Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted to the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring productions of King Lear and The Seagull, now playing in Brooklyn, plus a report on the Theatre de la Jeune Leune production of Don Juan Giovanni, now playing at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre:

Ian McKellen and the Royal Shakespeare Company have been barnstorming around the world all summer, performing "King Lear" and Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" as staged by Trevor Nunn, the man who brought us "Cats." This month they're in Brooklyn, and I saw both shows on consecutive nights earlier this week. One is good, the other near perfect--and I was surprised by which was which.

The buzz on "Lear" is true: The 68-year-old Mr. McKellen doffs his knickers in the storm scene, offering the audience a fully frontal view of his gray anatomy. The gratuitous gesture is all of a piece with the rest of this exciting but ill-sorted production, which wobbles between grand-manner melodrama (Lear's Fool is hanged onstage just before the intermission) and scabby touches of directorial cuteness (a doddering Lear reads his first speech from a handful of three-by-five cards). I'm still trying to figure out the costumes, which looked like they'd been designed for the Siberia Light Opera Company's production of "The Merry Widow."

As Lear, Mr. McKellen is mannered and ranting until the storm scene, when he finds the center of the role and thereafter becomes compelling....

"The Seagull," played by the same cast on the same unit set in a new English-language version prepared by Mr. Nunn in collaboration with the ensemble, is as consistent in tone as "Lear" is uncertain. Here everything is grippingly, unostentatiously right. Tone is everything in Chekhov's sad comedies, peopled as they are by unfulfilled men and women whose melancholy plight is all the more affecting because it is so funny. In Mr. Nunn's production, "The Seagull" is played decisively for laughs, and that's the right call: If you take care of the comedy in Chekhov, the pathos will take care of itself. ...

I saw Minneapolis' Theatre de la Jeune Lune for the first time last fall and was entranced by its zany transformation of Molière's "The Miser." Now Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp are collaborating with the American Repertory Theatre on a pair of shows in which "Don Giovanni" and "The Marriage of Figaro" are similarly rethought and reworked....

Like Mr. Nunn's "Lear," "Don Juan Giovanni" is not above gratuitous shock effects--I saw no particular reason, for instance, why the Don's manservant needed to relieve himself onstage--and I'm not sure how much sense the show will make to viewers unfamiliar with the original opera. But if you know your way around Mozart's version, my guess is that you'll be enthralled by what "Don Juan Giovanni" has to say about that most disturbing of masterpieces, and by the terrific flair with which it is said.

No free link, so buy a paper, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will allow you to read my column--and all the rest of the Journal's excellent arts coverage--on the spot. (If you're already a subscriber, the column is here.)

Posted September 14, 2007 12:00 AM

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