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June 24, 2009

REVIEW Finest Individual Performance I've Seen

Roy Meachum

When I first looked on actor Stacy Keach from a reviewer's seat, his white beard was fake. He played Wild Bill Cody in Arena Stage's "Indians," a somewhat bitter analogy for the very bitter protests against the raging Vietnam War. We were young men in our prime. Now the white beards are very real, on both sides of the lights.


We have reached the winter of our lives and that's what Mr. Keach's stage vehicle is all about. He opened Sunday evening at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harmon Hall in what is billed as a "remount" of Director Robert Falls' breathtaking, mesmerizing and truly astonishing production of "King Lear."


Unless you happened to wander through Chicago's Goodman Theatre a few years ago, you ain't seen nothing like it. I guarantee!!


Mr. Fall transferred the action from pre-historic Britain to the Yugoslavia warring against anyone who popped his head up, or so it seemed. Instead of the barren English heath, the director and designer Walt Spangler created several end-of-the-world sets. At one point it is an after-battle battlefield with bodies littered all over the place and then trashed down a convenient trap on stage. The music is simply like nothing I've ever heard in a theatre. The costumes and lights? There are no adjectives of praise adequate in my verbal quiver.


That, of course, is a cop out, and I will use the same tactic when it comes to reviewing individual players. Reading the credits I gather many of them appeared in the original Chicago production; this must be considered by no means a way to denigrate them, quite the opposite. They know what they're about, and they go about it splendidly.


Like STC's Artistic Director Michael Kahn, Robert Falls' genius selects human beings who act and interact quietly but brilliantly. Not every character, not every actor – but the fault lies in Shakespeare, not the director. Mr. Falls' "Lear" moves with a tailwind, a momentum that slows down only now and then. At approximately three hours, this just may be the speediest classic I ever witnessed. Not one breath is wasted. Be warned: the Shakespeare Theatre Company will host this magnificent "remount" only four more weeks: "King Lear" exits after performances on July 19.


Please allow, dear readers, a few words on the symmetry that Stacy Keach brings to my life. We met at Arena Stage some 40 years back, introduced by director Ed Sherin, who created "Great White Hope," which you may remember. But I can claim no long friendship with the actor.


Because of my years and my gray beard, my life's experiences and faded joys, I identify with Mr. Keach's Lear. Let me add: my false pride and overweening ego, at times. I hope I somehow simulate the actor's dignity when required to wear no clothes. He pulls off presenting himself in dirty underwear with grace and manhood. At its core, he is simply not acting a part, but being this "old man in a dry season" (Eliot) – bereft of promise and hope.


Maybe it's a matter of years; I've seen "King Lear" before, performed in a high-Shakespeare fashion and that means – despite the writer's warning – that words and ideas were mouthed, savored and enunciated.


Robert Falls deserves great credit, principally in my view, for letting the actor grope his way into the character, from the start; and no, I was not there at the beginning. But I witnessed Sunday evening the realization of the finest individual performance I've ever seen.


And that goes back before Stacy Keach presented himself in rhinestone bedecked chaps as the very incarnation of Wild Bill Cody doing his Wild West vaudeville show.


Bravo – for all concerned in this "King Lear."


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