A man more sinned against than sinning

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Kicking off my two-night residency in row F of the BAM Harvey theater, I was initially antsy. “King Lear” is three and a half hours long, and a friend of mine had told me that he left at intermission without a second thought. What if the sold-out run — tickets are going for as much as $650 on Craigslist — was all hype? My fears, it turned out, were unfounded.

Sure it’s long, and sometimes — unless you yourself speak in iambic pentameter — things aren’t quite so easy to follow, but nevertheless the production was stunning.

Sir Ian McKellen, for one, shouldn’t be allowed to leave Brooklyn. (Memo to Karen Hopkins: I’ll hold him down if you nab his passport. Call me!) McKellen brings a humor to the tragic King, shouting at Cordelia through a sideways crown that resembles a zero, and delivers a nuanced performance that ranks among his best.

It also helps that he’s joined by a cast equally as strong. Frances Barber, who purred like Eartha Kitt as Goneril, and Philip Winchester, playing Edmund in his debut season with the RSC, were standouts, both seething with the wickedness of their characters, but never going overboard.

Director Trevor Nunn’s creation was all the more fantastic at the Harvey, where the cushy bench seats butt up against the stage and each of the players’ slightest moves — including McKellen’s nude scene — are very much in your face.

Nunn should also be applauded for pairing “Lear” with Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” which (for the audience as well as for the actors) was a perfect complement.

Here, many players who were front and center for “Lear” take secondary roles (McKellen, for example, is seated most of the time as the old and unsteady Sorin), giving the company’s other players time to shine. The changing cast mimics the changing style; where “Lear” soars, “Seagull” snarls, making for a funnier, if no less heavy, show.

This programming is quite a “get” for BAM, where McKellen appeared once before in a 1974 production of “Lear.” New York is only one of three American cities where this production will be seen. Granted, it isn’t an original production — something that Brooklyn’s arts institutes need to mount more of, frankly — but in this case, BAM really struck gold.

Recently, McKellen told the New Yorker that playing Lear was “the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.” Last week, when the audience rose to its feet for what felt like never-ending applause, he smiled out into the house like it might have been the most fulfilling also.

“King Lear” will run through Sept. 26 and “The Seagull” will run through Sept. 29 at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St., at Rockwell Place in Fort Greene). Tickets are $30 – $90, but are mostly sold out. For information, call (718) 636-4100 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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