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Gruesome ‘Lear’ Connects Striving Kids, Aging Parents: Review

Greg Hicks and Samantha Young in "King Lear," at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, runs in repertory through Aug. 12. Photographer: Stephanie Berger/Lincoln Center Festival via Bloomberg

It’s something many of us can relate to: An ageing parent grows paranoid and forgetful, with a propensity to make poor decisions and an entourage of 100 knights.

“King Lear” at the Park Avenue Armory is a grand yet familiar tragedy, the latest offering by the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company.

Greg Hicks, with unruly white locks, resembles Richard Harris or Jeff Bridges onstage, an imperial Lear oozing passion even after his career-ending goof to abdicate his throne and turn his kingdom over to the two most obsequious of his three daughters.

Whether barking orders or wandering homeless in his underwear and with a crown of newly picked flowers, Hicks movingly suggests a once-powerful figure now diminished by Alzheimer’s disease, his dementia cresting and falling.

I was surprised to read that the actor is 58. With his skeletal frame and gray wig he looks well into retirement. His stamina suggests otherwise.

David Farr’s direction is cinematic and heavy on special effects, including metal clanking and electrical short circuits. The blinding of the Earl of Gloucester (Geoffrey Freshwater) is so realistic many in the audience shielded their eyes.

The clown is played by a woman, Sophie Russell, with a cockney accent, suggesting a father-daughter relationship as she tells Lear inconvenient truths.

As for Lear’s real daughters, Samantha Young is a quiet and controlled Cordelia, who describes her love for dad as more ponderous than her tongue. The connivingly dutiful daughters Regan and Goneril are played by Katy Stephens and Kelly Hunter, who do nasty nicely. Tunji Kasim projects amiable benevolence, which seemed misplaced as Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate and plotting son.

The costumes mix period dress with World War I uniforms and weapons, which didn’t entirely make sense but didn’t detract. The production runs nearly 3 1/2 hours; still, it’s a fast-paced, invigorating night out.

“King Lear” runs through Aug. 12 in repertory with four other Shakespeare plays at Park Avenue and East 67th Street. Information: +1-212-721-6500; Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Excellent
***         Very Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Philip Boroff is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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