Pianist Artur Schnabel, a Beethoven specialist, said he wanted to play only music that was better than it could ever be performed. "King Lear" is that kind of play, full of depths no company could sound in a single production.
Collaborative Arts Theatre has made a valid, simple choice: This is a story about naked suffering, in which the title character lets rage and pride and rashness ruin himself and those around him.
Hiring Graham Smith to play his third Lear paid dividends: He inspires others to give their best, and his performance is like a full-frequency recording of a big symphony, effective from murmured asides to shouted curses.
Lear has no soliloquies of self-recognition, as most of Shakespeare's tragic characters do: He's full of speeches, mad and sane, but he doesn't open up. Yet we felt for this Lear; he began as a rude child in his dotage, snatching at compliments like a boy seizing lollipops, and ended in a pathetic awareness of folly.
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The actors who do best here make speeches sound elevated and natural at once, rather than stressing the poetry too heavily or changing the rhythms to mimic conversations heard in modern plays.
Gretchen McGinty's plaintive Cordelia does this consistently. So does Tim Ross' Edmund - a remarkable feat, as Ross stepped in late and competently as director. Stephen T. Ware is a sweetly gentle Gloucester but fumbled or omitted lines opening night.
This version offered one characterization I'd never seen: Zack Byrd's young, bouncy Fool, the first I've encountered who was genuinely funny without being dour or sour. For once, the audience laughed at his stinging jokes. (A clueless segment of the crowd also snickered like rubes at Lear's mad scenes.)
I've been told that, if everyone attending "Lear" gives a $5 donation, the show will end in the black. It was worth more than that on opening night; as the actors plant their feet more solidly, it will increase in value. So if you go - and I would - don't be cheap.