A Tragedy of Excess

King Lear Directed by Peter Sellars At the Loeb through March 1

PETER SELLARS HAS BALLS. His King Lear drives Shakespeare's poetry to a North Hollywood parking lot, yanks it from the back seat and stabs it helter-skelter while the gods guffaw. But Sellars' production fails because it attempts too much, his ambition exceeds his grasp. Far from letting the play breathe, he beats it about the neck with a crowbar, adding abrasions and welts until he obscures his own intentions. By any interpretation, Lear should not be an interminable, mired melodrama set in a tempest of technology. Sellars' Lear is a tragedy of excess.

Brother Blue was slotted to play Lear but quit. 'It's the greatest play ever written," Blue exclaimed, gesturing wildly at intermission opening night. "It's just such a great role." But Blue felt he could not reach the level of intensity he had sought, nor could he fathom the depths of Lear's psyche. So he told Sellars he could not go on. "They say Paul Scofield took ten years preparing for this role," Blue lamented. Sellars had allotted him only several weeks. Days before the scheduled opening last Tuesday, Sellars had no Lear. Pinched, he opted to play the part himself. As the program notes, "There is no replacement for Brother Blue."

Peter Sellars is no actor. Full of noise--moans, sighs, barks, wimpers, heavy breath--his Lear is pitiable, not tragic. Like the monstrous fur coat that drapes his frail frame for much of the evening, the role of Lear dwarfs Sellars. Rather than confront the character, Sellars flops to his knees, letting his words drool in an endless, barely audible stream. His tortured soul is senile, not mad.

With only a shriveled, frenzied mutterer at its core, this Lear lacks coherence. Nor does Chris Clemenson's Gloucester provide even a hunch-backed spine to this play. He is too fretful, laborious, lumbering. In past productions, Clemenson has used his expressive and modulated voice to define a character. Here however, the lighting often shields his face and his changes in tone seem unusually grating. Only after Gloucester's blinding does he add subtle vision to his performance, staggering to the edge of the Dover cliffs and pitching forward to a living death.

When he ultimately dies a real death, Gloucester collapses to the stage and remains there, an unmoving corpse, for an hour. Clemenson's endurance is remarkable. Sellars has turned his actors into marathon runners moving--not always smoothly--through their paces. Admirably, he has tried to mesh an Elizabethan notion of the play with an ill-defined space-age concept. He successfully holds to many 16th Century traditions but engulfs them with gadgets and gimmickry.

No fault is so egregious, however, as the excessive length of this production. Sellar's Lear runs more than four hours. It tests our endurance with strange visual effects that add little to an understanding of the play. The notorious storm of Act III wails for an hour amidst pendulous light bulbs, harsh spotlights, rolling rocks, flickering candles, blinking headlights of a sleek Lincoln Continental, and the disturbing whine of steel cellos. Yet Sellars wants more. On comes a snake of worklights, four television sets and two Polaroid cameras with flash bulbs. Sellars uses every corner of the stage, from the turrets in the wings and the halls outside the theater to the back seat of the Lincoln. He positions his actors to eerie effect.

In the glaring confusion of this scene Sellars tries to turn Lear's tragedy on us, blinding us with spotlights until our eyes tear or shut; deafening us with insidious noise, the constant whir of electric mosquitoes or a four-hour test of the emergency broadcast system; teasing us with snippets of Shakespeare's poetry made impotent by the onslaught of technological power. We are all Lears, Sellars implies, who have turned our backs on love, on simple beauty and grace, on people and objects of substance. Like Lear we mistakenly embrace the shiny, the glossy, the plastic, the metallic--words and things that mean nothing to us when we are old. And we are all old in this 20th Century where death stands urinating in the corner, able to turn his fury on us in an instant.

But four hours of mechanical torture does not turn us into Lears. Even if we strain, we can't hear the hoofbeats of the Apocalypse galloping closer. Nor do we realize, like Lear, that life and space and time will not stand still while we crawl in the maddening mud of self-pity. Instead, this Lear alienates us, erects a barrier between the stage and the audience, makes us struggle to stay in our seats. We throw up our hands. We do not want to watch TV, to see the results of the New Hampshire primary or an Ajax commercial on Sellar's quartet of black and white sets. We do not want to watch Lear struggle across the stage yanking a Snoopy doll and babbling incoherently.

We want to see King Lear. The play is lost in this riot of effects. Gallons of poetry get tossed aside in buckets, muttered irreverently, spoken upstage, bellowed deafeningly into microphones, and whispered into nothingness. Too often Sellars's cast splashes sloppily through the Shakespeare. Action overtakes language so that wrestling matches, gouged eyes and rock-throwing dominate the play.

An opening scene of striking ingenuity does not hint at the wrong-headedness to come. At the edge of the stage sit Kent and Gloucester, chatting and drinking champagne. Derek McLane's austere set leaves no place for warmth. Black gauze hangs menacingly. The Lincoln rests like a hearse--Lear's castle--upstage center. Its grille grins, its headlights stare. Seven stars, like seven gods, watch from the rafters. Lear emerges from the automobile, masked in sunglasses, master of his court, eager to dispatch the richest third of his Kingdom to his youngest daughter Cordelia. But Cordelia refuses to flatter her father and the play commences, careening out of control.

The ride is occasionally brilliant. Cast perfectly as Edmund, Brain McCue makes a consummate villian, treacherous and slimy. He plots with devilish wit, alternately the angry young bastard and the charming rogue, whose schemes overwhelm him. McCue is hilarious when he sulks in the front seat of the Lincoln or when he fakes a wound by splattering ketchup on his arm.

Her Cordelia too complex, and her Fool too simple, Jenny Cornuelle portrays both parts with haunting skill. But when the special effects do not smother her, she delivers some of Shakespeare's most beautifully ironic peotry with quivering power.

ALL TOO CLEARLY, though, this Lear is Sellars' work. He rarely lets his actors act, posing them for effect without reason, hiding them in shadows and drowning them out with the scratching of the steel cellos. Sellars' yen for the visually spectacular became evident in last year's Three Sisters, when he vividly rendered Chekhov's work but stretched it to more than three hours by inserting a handful of maddeningly long silences and a half dozen Chopin nocturnes. Now we expect more than flashy technique from Sellars. We want drama.

Martin Davies, as Edgar, often manages to escape Sellars' designs. His sweet British accent gives Shakespeare's poetry its proper melody. And his transformation from Eton dupe to London punk adds a clever twist to Sellars' dismal view of modern civilization.

The rest of the cast fares less well, unable to break free of Sellars's spell, like automatons in a technocracy. Grace Shohet is properly bitchy as Goneril and Anne Clarke makes a vapidly cruel Regan but they remain one-dimensional. James Bundy plays Kent with remarkable sincerity but his brawl with Oswald (a surprisingly meaty role in the hands of David Prum) sinks to absurdity. Mathew Horsman and Judah Mandlebaum labor with Albany and Cornwall and Max Cantor skates onstage intermittently as the court's errand boy.

In the end, eight corpses litter the stage. Hans Tobeason's flaming lights are freed at last from the black drapes of deception, blinding the audience further. Edgar, Kent and Albany blink unbelievingly at the holocaust at their feet. We wait for a blackout and a curtain.

But there is no curtain call. Sellars denies his actors a final chance to escape the machinery of his production, frustrates our expectations one last time. He has destroyed the Lear we came to see and offered nothing tangible in its stead. It took guts. It failed. The theater buff will discover the dangers of excess. The theater-goer will learn the truth of Edgar's maxim: "The worst is not so long as we can say, 'This is the worst."'