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Spare production fills bleak world of 'King Lear'

As Lear rages into the storm in director Bill Rauch's stripped-down "King Lear," flashlights cast about in a struggle to pierce a darkness that's both literal and metaphorical. There is a roar of timpani, and a mud-spattered old man is stumbling around in his underwear.

Images of light throughout the play — a lamp, candles, a TV monitor — point to themes of seeing and not seeing. For starters, it's always a stretch for an audience to believe that Lear can't see through Goneril and Regan from the get-go.

This may be a play where less really is more. This Lear (Michael Winters) is not a majestic king whose figurative blindness will rend the cosmic order. He is the head of a dysfunctional family and a solipsistic old fool having a breakdown.

"King Lear" wasn't done for generations. It was too bleak until the 20th century came along and got rolling. Then it seemed to fit right in. This production runs with that. The milieu is less ancient Britain than, say, the absurd world of the existentialists.

The play always packs an emotional punch, and a spare, modern production in the round in the intimate Thomas Theatre throws everything into heightened relief.

The empty playing space on the bare stage picks up on the nihilism of the play's world, with just a few pieces of scenery and props turning up here and there.

There is a symbolically empty throne for Lear, a basketball hoop for Edmund (Raffi Barsoumian) as he plots against Edgar, an iron fence for fastening Kent's (Armando Durán) stocks, a sunken hovel for refugees from the storm, a grand piano for smug Regan and Cornwall.

The simple design underscores the banality of it all. Lear is in his boxer shorts, Edgar (Benjamin Pelteson) wears untidy whities as Poor Tom, Edmund sports combat fatigues, and Regan and Cornwall style it up in dressing gowns for Gloucester's blinding.

The playing is almost uniformly sharp, the characters' intentions clear. Cordelia (Sofia Jean Gomez) shows a flash of attitude when she refuses to play Lear's show-how-much-you-love-me game. You almost have to remind yourself she doesn't have a Facebook page to explain herself or get unfriended.

When Burgundy rejects Cordelia because she's been disinherited, she pats him on the back with a little smile. Good riddance. When she smiles coolly at Goneril (Vilma Silva) and Regan (Robin Goodrin Nordli) as they conspire against Lear, she sees exactly what they are, and they know she knows, and we know they know, and so on. Only Lear, a narcissistic personality and a prideful old fool, can't see what's plain.

A shadow passes over Winters' face in the second act when Goneril complains to him of the unruliness of his followers. Later in the act the beginning of his disintegration comes on abruptly as Regan and Goneril insult him and demand that he dismiss his men.

Silva's steely Goneril plays top dog to Nordli's coolly amoral Regan. The latter casually sips wine as Cornwall (Rex Young) uses a corkscrew on Gloucester in a chillingly effective interpretation of the play's most horrifying act.

Richard Elmore's Gloucester shows no hint of suspicion toward Edmund and not a jot of trust in Edgar. Like Lear, he's an old fool about to feel the pain that's sharper than a serpent's tooth because, also like Lear, he cannot see. Blinded, he becomes the physical analog of Lear's psychological state.

Edmund was once the New Man of the Renaissance, a social-climbing vulgarian in contrast to Edgar, who still has traditional (i.e., noble medieval) values. Here they both find themselves adrift in a meaningless world along with everybody else.

This is what Lear nods at when he says, in a rare moment of seeing clearly, and one of Winters' finer moments: "When we are born we cry that we are come/ to this great stage of fools ... "

Gloucester, poised at what he thinks is the precipice at Dover, isn't the only one facing a leap to annihilation. In a world that could almost have been written by Sartre, Beckett or Pinter, The Abyss is always waiting, everywhere. In the end, all will be lost.

For Lear that means his kingdom, his family, everything he loves, his mind. If there's a whiff of anything redemptive at all, it comes when Lear, lashed by the storm, opens his heart for the first time to the "naked wretches" he's never noticed before, who have little defense against various storms.

If "Hamlet" is a picture of man as all too human, "Lear" is a picture of the human condition as all too hopeless. The play was considered so disturbing from the Restoration onward that it wasn't done for a century-and-a-half except as a hoked-up fairy tale with Lear and Cordelia living happily ever after.

It took a century that told us that Shakespeare's great globe itself was a tiny speck in an inconceivably old and vast universe for us to catch up with the playwright's vision. The disillusionment that was once the property of genius is now common coin. Still, when Edgar says that we'll not see suffering like Lear's again, we'd like to believe him.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.

King Lear (Michael Winters) thinks the only person loyal to him is his Fool (Daisuke Tsuji). OSF photo courtesy Jenny Graham