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Dennis Krausnick, left, as Lear and Kevin Coleman as his Fool in Shakespeare & Company’s production of ‘King Lear’ in the Tina Packer Playhouse.
Saturday July 7, 2012

LENOX -- The physical setting for Rebecca Holderness’ production of "King Lear" at Shakespeare & Company’s newly renamed Tina Packer Playhouse is 1906 Imperial Russia.

The emotional landscape, however, is far less clearly defined.

In her program notes, Holderness says that period represents for her a time in which "the errors, both public and private, of a great and passionate ruler led to the demise of a family, an empire, and a way of life."

In practice, however, it provides little more than a richly laden palette for costume designer Govane Lohbauer.

The specificity of this time and this place is a distraction that offers no insight and raises far more questions than Holderness is prepared to answer. The use of English and French proper and place names -- Gloucester, Dover, Kent, Burgundy -- is enough to push one’s willing suspension of disbelief to its limits. A red Soviet star on the Fool’s cap, the occasional emergence of a peasant Russian accent here and there only add to the confusion and inconsistencies.

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But the issues here lie deeper. The raw, visceral power of "Lear" has been oddly muted by this ensemble, many of them Shakespeare & Company veterans who know each other well, onstage and off, but who here seem like strangers, at odds with one another, unable to connect the dots. The quiet chaos on stage feels less a reflection of the chaos being visited upon Shakespeare’s characters than it is the manifestation of a production without either a dramatic or emotional center.

Corinna May as Goneril, the oldest of Lear’s three daughters, and Kristin Wold as Regan, the middle daughter, seem ill at ease, uncertain, groping in roles that are tailor-made for them.

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As Lear, Dennis Krausnick delivers a cerebral, intellectually conceived performance that touches all the bases but makes resonant emotional connection only twice -- the sheer look of terror in his eyes when he first expresses his fear of going mad; and at the very end while cradling the lifeless body of his youngest, most loving daughter, Cordelia (an earnest, if ineffectual, Kelly Galvin) in his lap as the full consequence of what he has unleashed folds in around him.

Jonathan Croy as Gloucester, Jonathan Epstein as the loyal Kent and especially Peter Macklin as the treacherous, self-serving Edmund (is there an Iago in this young actor’s future?) provide a dramatic impact and emotional vitality and insight this production so desperately needs throughout.