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Stage Review

In ‘King Lear,’ Lyman is king of the Common

Will Lyman (second from left) leads a solid cast in “King Lear.”<br align="block"/> Barry Chin/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Few Shakespearean tragedies haunt the imagination more deeply than “King Lear,’’ with its aged and dispossessed monarch howling on the stormy heath, the savage blinding of Gloucester, and a general cosmic bleakness so pervasive you can only nod your head in agreement with one of the play’s most famous lines (delivered, as it happens, by the unfortunate Gloucester): “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods: They kill us for their sport.’’

Steven Maler, Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s founding artistic director, selected this dark and monumental drama to mark the 20th season of the company’s Free Shakespeare on the Common performances, and he chose Will Lyman for the title role.


The first choice was smart; the second, inspired.

Lyman’s towering performance in “King Lear” offers the satisfying spectacle of a great actor putting his own distinctive stamp on a classic role. His agonized, many-sided Lear instantly earns a place in the gallery of unforgettable Lyman portrayals, alongside his Joe Keller in Huntington Theatre Company’s “All My Sons’’ (2010) and his James Tyrone in New Repertory Theatre’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night’’ (2012).

Though CSC’s “King Lear’’ loses a bit of steam in its second half, the production overall is a strong one that does not flinch from Shakespeare’s hardest truths about human suffering and the human cruelty that causes it — an especially welcome approach after the disappointingly superficial “King Lear’’ by Shakespeare’s Globe that was presented last fall at ArtsEmerson.

In part, this is a play concerned with the lethal consequences of blindness, a lack of vision, a willful failure to see. Lear cannot see the evil in Regan and Goneril, the two daughters to whom he yields his powers, and he cannot see the honesty in the daughter he repudiates, Cordelia. Gloucester, wrenchingly portrayed by Fred Sullivan Jr., cannot see the duplicity in his “illegitimate’’ son Edmund, who easily turns the father against his other son, the dutiful Edgar.


The moral myopia of the older generation is underscored in a wordless dream sequence (choreographed by Yo-el Cassell) that serves as a kind of prologue to the CSC production. Lear, in a gold-trimmed blue military uniform, revels in his stature as his daughters and others dance obsequiously around him, only to be abruptly blindfolded and disorientingly hoisted aloft while still on his throne, a suddenly ridiculous figure who has lost his once-unshakeable power.

In the subsequent opening scene, Lyman fully communicates the king’s foolishness, impetuosity, and vindictiveness as, with a cold stare, he lashes out at Cordelia, the daughter who loves him, while rashly handing over his kingdom to the two daughters who emphatically do not love him. Yet the actor still persuades us that, on balance, Lear fits his own description as “a man more sinned against than sinning’’; still moves us to deep pity as the king begins to descend into confusion and madness. Lyman is riveting in the play’s big moments — the windy, rain-soaked scene on the heath; the king’s desperate attempts to detect signs of life in Cordelia in the final scene — and equally compelling in the small ones, such as when Lear, his wits beginning to crack, says in a tone of quiet anguish: “O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’’

Jeremiah Kissel, that ever-reliable force of nature, brings unstoppable forward drive to his portrayal of the Earl of Kent, a Lear loyalist who disguises himself (and adopts an amusing French accent) to surreptitiously serve the very king who has banished him. Director Maler showcases the actor’s athleticism in the opening scene, when Lyman’s Lear tosses his crown in front of him, and Kissel’s Kent races across the stage and makes a catch worthy of Rob Gronkowski.


The rest of the cast delivers solid performances, including Mickey Solis as an icily aloof Edmund and Ed Hoopman as a passionate Edgar, although the climactic sword fight between the two is far from convincing. Libby McKnight conveys Cordelia’s heartbreak and resolve with equal effectiveness, while Deb Martin and Jeanine Kane elicit the requisite chills as Goneril and Regan, partners in cunning and ambition but rivals for Edmund’s affection. Maurice Emmanuel Parent exhibits memorable ruthlessness as Cornwall — especially in the Gloucester-blinding scene, one of the most excruciating in Shakespeare — while Mark W. Soucy embodies dogged decency as Albany.

And then there’s Lear’s Fool, a key character, who, frankly, can sometimes get on your nerves. But not in this production. Attired in a bowler hat, Brandon Whitehead brings a neo-vaudevillian flair to the role that turns the Fool into a genuinely entertaining, James Corden-like jester. So we understand why Lear keeps him around, even as the Fool tweaks the king with riddling reminders of his folly in surrendering his kingdom.

By the end, with the stage abounding in evidence of the betrayals and violence and family cataclysms he unwittingly set in motion, it’s clear that Lyman’s shattered Lear is only too aware of what he’s done.


Stage Review


Play by William Shakespeare

Directed by Steven Maler

Set, Beowulf Boritt. Costumes, Katherine O’Neill. Sound, Colin Thurmond. Lights, Peter West. Movement and choreography, Yo-el Cassell. Music compositions, Gabriel Prokofiev.

Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company

On Boston Common through Aug. 9

Free admission. For information, call 617-426-0863. Weather hot line, 781-239-5972. Reserved chairs available for $50 at

Don Aucoin can be reached at