Despite the Missouri Rep’s good intentions, King Lear’s audience suffers nearly as much as he does.

King of Pain 

Despite the Missouri Rep’s good intentions, King Lear’s audience suffers nearly as much as he does.

As drama, King Lear is kind of awful. Saying that, I feel like the old coot himself, shaking my fist at storms and forces far beyond my ken. But that won't stop me.

The tragedy of an old man forced to spend a night in the rain, Lear peaks full acts before it ends and asks you to feel for a prick who chucks out the only daughter who loves him simply because she refuses to kiss his ass. Sure, the speeches shake the earth, but the show is still three hours of beard-plucking, eye-gouging, heavens-beseeching madness in which the two smartest characters elect to speak impenetrable gibberish and everyone is likely to pretend to be someone else for reasons that you hope to God aren't on the test.

The key lesson, so far as I can tell: Make retirement plans.

There's plenty to savor, of course. The opening — when Lear bequeaths to his daughters shares of his kingdom, the sizes of which are proportionate to the quality of the girls' flattery — is cruel comedy, presented sharply in this production at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The villainy of Edmund the Bastard is wicked fun, particularly here; David DeSantos demonstrates the wit of a comic and the dashing élan of an old-fashioned screen star.

Then there's Lear himself, that used-up king who commands nothing of his kingdom and far too little of his own play. As portrayed by the excellent Denis Arndt, Lear lumbers around stooped, his belly thrust out, swaggering but careful not to bust a hip. On Lear's first night of homelessness, as the storms blast him and his sanity wavers, Arndt makes the wild swings of temper intelligible, which is impressive. He also makes them resonate, which can thrill: His regret, joy and horror jangle the audience. (Remarkably, just one night after George W. Bush's State of the Union, Arndt made me feel for a mad king unable to take advice or admit his mistakes.)

Acting is strong from most of the principals, especially the older guys. Gary Holcombe (as Kent) and Gary Neal Johnson (as pitiful Gloucester) offer layered, lived-in performances and the verses trip lightly from their tongues. The daughters are either wicked or sweet, as the bard demands it, with Kandis Chappell's Goneril alternately frightening in her cruelty and funny in her lustiness. Larry Paulsen's Fool manages to make his hopelessly tangled jests sting, and — despite some killer lightning effects — it's his cowering that sells the centerpiece tempest.

Yes, loads of things work in this Lear. Still, the show kind of hurts after a while, often through no fault of the Rep. Key characters are killed offstage, at least one for reasons that I had to look up when I got home. And the material that makes this timeless — that involving Lear himself — is too often abandoned for the overwrought machinations of his offspring. How, exactly, the daughters' refusal to put up with Lear and his posse for a couple of weeks at a time results in the gouging of an earl's eyes seems murky.

At times, it becomes a weighty bore. In that sense, the problems specific to this production work in its favor, jolting us awake. Some scene breaks are marked with a tooth-rattling kuh-chung sound right out of Law & Order. This had a defibrillating effect on an often flatlined crowd when I saw the play. The duels feature actors carefully hitting each other's swords, a disappointment after the excitement that Sidonie Garrett mustered in last summer's Henry V. Likewise, the blinding of Gloucester — a burst of holy-shit violence that doesn't make much sense but should at least horrify — comes and goes in a confusing muddle.

The action is framed by a wall of stone tablets chiseled with Celtic writing; in many places, the stone appears to have rotted away, leaving gaps of atmospheric black. The effect is that of a great bureaucracy crumbling, which would make sense if, say, the play were about such a thing or if Britain had died with Lear instead of chin-upping its way through another millennium and counting. This production is set in the age of the historical Lear, which makes the crumbling stonework even more curious: Back then, ancient tablets weren't ancient yet. (Even more risible is the Celtic kitsch: The entrance to one estate is a wickery horseshoe that could be marking the toll road to elf town.)

As the show went on, though, and David Barlow's Edgar stripped to a loincloth and began spitting and caterwauling as Poor Tom, I finally understood that the scenery wasn't meant to appear rotted away at all. It had simply been chewed.

Special attention must be paid to David Graham Jones, one of Kansas City's best young actors, who demonstrates the persevering spirit that got the British through so many horrible kings. In two minor roles, Jones acts his heart out, looking sufficiently pained and horrified, despite being saddled with the silliest fake beards since the Marx brothers passed themselves off as famous Russian aviators. By the end, poor Jones couldn't have looked goofier if he'd been done up like the Monopoly millionaire.

I didn't mind, though. Thanks more to the greatest writer who ever lived than to the Rep, this play's heart had stopped beating half an hour before.

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