What if King Lear was a self-glorifying Middle Eastern potentate with a yen for kissing his grown daughters and stroking their thighs? And what if they, likewise, were not averse to straddling him and crawling on all fours when the occasion presented itself?
It’s a premise Folger Theatre’s recently opened production of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy asks the audience to embrace — with surprisingly effective results.
Produced with The Classical Theatre of Harlem and directed by that company’s co-founder Alfred Preisser, Folger’s “King Lear” is as majestic as it is unorthodox, with a sublime, majority black cast (performing at a level several notches above a typical Folger offering), ancient Mesopotamian sets and costumes and a Margaret Mead-esque reinterpretation of the relationship between Lear and his daughters.
The inclusion of a multitalented musician, Shayshahn MacPherson (who sits just above the stage and alternates between drums, cymbals, violin and periodic appearances below as part of the supporting cast), rounds out this Lear’s more innovative elements.
As Lear, André De Shields, a Tony Award nominee, is downright mesmerizing from the moment he enters the stage to the pulsing beat of drums, sporting a towering gold headpiece and multicolored robes and exerting a hypnotic sexual power over his three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia. It’s his moment of supreme confidence and folly — as he parcels out his kingdom based on the expressed devotion of his offspring. The preening, sexually fawning Goneril and Regan come off with the lot of it, while the more reserved and genuine Cordelia (an alternately vulnerable and warrior-like Christina Sajous) is viciously banished, along with the faithful nobleman who dares defend her, Kent, played with understated sensitivity by Jerome Preston Bates.
The interaction between Lear and his duplicitous daughters Goneril and Regan is at the crux of this production — and their betrayal of him and his subsequent descent into madness plays out in visceral terms. Notably, his encroaching insanity is physically manifest by a progressively disheveled physical appearance, which at its nadir finds him wearing the male equivalent of a string bikini bottom and hopping around like a lunatic.
Part Amazon dominatrixes, part wicked stepsisters, this Regan (Deidra LaWan Starnes) and Goneril (Chantal Jean-Pierre) manipulate those around them with ruthless zeal. At one point, the pernicious pair circles Lear on wooden platforms — like hybrid vulture-sharks closing in on their victim.
Ken Schatz carries off a flawless performance as the the witty yet devoted Fool, Lear’s sidekick who spins bawdily insightful riddles mainly at the expense of his master, but remains faithful until his accidental slaying at Lear’s crazed hands (at least in this version).
Meanwhile, the elegant Earl of Gloucester (Harold Surratt) is blinded (literally and figuratively) by the ambitions of his bastard son, Edmund, who deceives both the earl and his legitimate son, Edgar (Danyon Davis), in an attempt to usurp his brother of his rightful inheritance. Gloucester will get his eyes plucked out — in a stomach-turning scene that involves squirting fake blood — thanks to the conspiring of Regan, her husband Cornwall (Francis Mateo) and Edmund.
Finally, Ty Jones’ Edmund (whose standout physicality includes backflips and other gravity-defying leaps) is a rakishly seductive chap, far more interesting and cunning than the good son Edgar. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes. In a play where few get out alive, Jones, at least, appears to be having a good time.
“King Lear” runs through Feb. 18 at the Folger Theatre, located at 201 East Capitol St. SE. For more information, go to www. folger.edu.