A storm to end all storms, a battle scene to end all battle scenes—both achieved with barely more than some well-deployed tarpaulins. The Belarus Free Theater's King Lear is so visually inventive, so endlessly stunning that I started to doubt my own reactions. Was I being seduced by a bunch of cool but empty gestures? Or maybe by the political glamour of BFT's backstory, rooted in resistance to Belarusan strongman Alexandr Lukashenko? Or was this early entry in Shakespeare 400 Chicago—a citywide commemoration of the Bard's death, in 1616—authentically great?
Well, now I've had a chance to think about it. It's great.
As performed at Chicago Shakespeare Theater under the direction of Vladimir Shcherban—whose approach is at once wryly Beckettian yet full of a very un-Beckett-like exuberance—the production neatly (and also very messily) uses a trunkful of dirt to demystify the land wealth at the center of the conflict between Lear and his daughters. Uses Slavic folk tunes to give that conflict a deep tribal resonance—first scaring us to death, later making us want to weep. Uses an exquisite, nestlike crown to tell us all we need to know about kingship and paternity. And, finally, uses Aleh Sidorchyk's thuggish, jolly Lear and Victoria Biran's tormented, ungenerous Cordelia to show us their relationship in a brilliant new light.
One caution: I'd look the play over before seeing it if I were you, since the show is presented in Belarusian with English supertitles, potentially compromising the experience for Anglophones.
R King LearTue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand, 312-595-5600, chicagoshakes.com, $48-$58.