A growing awareness of one's own insanity is an almost unbearable thing to imagine, and no other work in the English language makes us do so with such relentless precision as Shakespeare's King Lear.
The problem is playing the guy. In this age of nebbishness, nobody's big enough anymore to match onstage the towering figure of crumbling power the text paints in the imagination. In Portland Center Stage's current rendition, NYC import Thom Christopher's Lear isn't disappointing as much as he isÉ negligible. Not particularly old, or powerful seeming, Christopher chimes in a bafflingly presence-less performance. Whether his beloved daughter Cordelia (Christine Calfas) is denying her love for him, or his two other evil daughters are cruelly exploiting his senility, nothing seems to register with him, and he maintains an aura of glassy-eyed, almost amiable befuddlement (read: boring) throughout.
Fortunately, Lear, offers plenty of juicy lesser parts, and the supporting cast here is quite good, even working within director Chris Coleman's unoriginal vision of Lear's kingdom as a modern military compound. As Lear's fool, Stephanie Berry is a street-smart trash-talker with a beautiful singing voice. I've never seen an actor mine so many laughs out of that bizarre role. Scott Coopwood, despite looking capable of homicide, is probably Portland's best actor, and his bastard Edmund is joyfully sinister. Ted Roisum is a delight, employing a cockney brogue here as Kent, the loyal banished servant who returns in disguise to continue working for the king. Tim True, Margo Skinner, and Gretchen Corbett chime in as the sadistic Cornwall, Goneril and Regan, respectively.
The all-star cast keeps this bloated production watchable. Coleman has always been in love with his own visual flair, but not even Lear needs to be three and a half hours long. On opening night, the pacing was turgid, in part because the performers weren't hitting their cues fast enough, but also because every last gorgeous Coleman "stage picture" had to be lingered on with quivering resonance. In a play focused on the epic downsides of towering ego, the biggest ego was apparently behind the scenes.