Bending conventions

Portland Center Stage’s “King Lear,” running through Oct. 31, isa great production that doesn’t bend the rules as much as it could.The music is stellar, subtle as background and imposing when itneeds to be. The set, two simple sets of walls that spin oncommand, offered beautiful variation throughout.

This world of King Lear is set somewhat in the modern world. Thespear-holders (background actors) were Secret Service goons andcamouflaged soldiers with rifles, used to great efficiency forsetting the scene. When Lear was being hunted, they would enterrandomly and run across the stage, boots pounding, rifles at theready. When a party was happening, they would carouse quicklyacross the stage, looking like freshmen at a PSU kegger.

The main characters wore tuxedoes, ball gowns and businesssuits. But the script went unchanged, staying outside the dreaded”adaptation.” The result was almost a convention break, but notquite. Imagine a tattooed teenage Cordelia spouting “thee” and”thou” and you will get a sense of the inconsistency.

This is an inconsistency that could work well, but only if it isadhered to at all times. In this show, it is not. None of theactors carry rapiers, but the weapons they have (whether guns ordaggers) are referred to as swords. The audience is never boldlyshown that the “sword” they mean is the one in their hands or attheir hip – we are supposed to make the connection ourselves. Eventhis could have worked, if it was not for one cheap joke.

A lackey haughtily walks by Lear, talking on a cellphone. The king yells at him, and after a pause the lackey says,”I’ll call you back” and puts the phone in his pocket.

Cheap laugh.

It also breaks the rule that Coleman had set for the production:this is a modern world shackled by Shakespeare’s script. Once hebroke that shackle, there was no reason to keep it. But keep it hedid. Not as satisfying as a clean breaking of the rules, but stilla good world for some talented actors to play in.

Thom Christopher’s Lear was engaging and unique. He shinedduring intimate moments, where he was distracted or confused. Thismade his character so close to us at the end, when he could takehis time with the beats. This is an actor that would be able toturn an hour-long show of five lines into a thing of purebeauty.

Scott Coopwood played Edmond, the villain. You could tell he wasthe villain, because he had a goatee. And a cane. And, sometimes, alimp.

It is unfortunate that his considerable ability was crammed intoa such a poor twisting. Had he left out the inconstant limp, thiswould have been one of the most notable characters of the year.

Stephanie Berry, the only female that didn’t suck outright, wasmasterful as the fool. She did not make the easy choice of being asassy black fool. Instead, she was a concierge and entertainer ofthe King, who happened to be a sassy black woman.

Many other characters – especially Kent, Gloucester and Edgar -were wonderfully performed. But if you’re a Jackie Chan fan, youmight want to close your eyes during the horrendous stage fights. Acouple of times the audience laughed at how bad they were.

This production had the ability to seriously break some rules.Indeed, much of the rule-bending – split focus, upstage speeches,gaping exit curtains – would have worked beautifully if it had beenpushed further. The tiny push Coleman gives to the rules does notjustify itself, and a traditional production would have beencleaner. But this King Lear has more than enough polish toshine.