Watch your back, not hers, your highness.
Watch your back, not hers, your highness.

What hadn’t occurred to me before this week’s matched set of heroic tragedies opened, was that King Lear’s Edmund—the brother-denouncing, prince-cuckolding, bastard son of a Gloucester from an earlier century—is Richard’s dramatic twin. His methods are equivalently Machiavellian, his conscience equally nonexistent. In the production jointly mounted by the Folger Theater and the Classical Theater of Harlem, Ty Jones plays the devious little creep as a calculatingly servile underling, ever unobtrusively underfoot—never more so than in an intriguingly choreographed early scene in which he kneels to offer his back as a royal footstool to a Lear who is about to plunge off a raised platform.

That André De Shields’ king seems unaware when his treacherous footing is replaced by a treacherous courtier offers a clue to the cluelessness of a Lear who will fatally misjudge his heirs. And other hints arrive in similarly wordless fashion in Alfred Preisser’s staging, where the pacing is brisk, the performances brash, and the jokes of Lear’s Fool are accompanied by rimshots from a percussionist-on-high.

Attired in shimmering gold and turquoise, De Shields’ Lear is serenely majestic on his first entrance, smiling beatifically and surrounded by dervishes, two of whom leap so feverishly into his embrace you figure they must be concubines. Instead, these forward creatures turn out to be Regan and Goneril, the daughters who will flatter and betray Lear, and who are clearly not going to be subtle about doing so. Gentler Cordelia is more reserved, which will, of course, prove her downfall but which marks her as, at least, a creature of taste and breeding.

Or not. Preisser’s staging means to place Shakespeare’s thousand-year-old story a thousand years further in the past, in an ancient Mesopotamia where family and social standing are decidedly fluid, and where notions of taste aren’t taken nearly as seriously as the voodoo curses of a king who is descending into madness. This is an arresting notion, though not perhaps one easily tackled by a director less intent on illuminating the script than on managing showy acrobatics (Jones punctuates Edmund’s “stand up for bastards” speech by executing a standing backflip).

Preisser’s staging is not helped by a certain unevenness in the cast. Ken Schatz’s Fool is such an insinuating delight that your heart sinks when Lear accidentally stabs him just before intermission (no, that’s not customary, but he has no more lines, so I guess he’s expendable), and Jones’ sneaky Edmund is as persuasive as Jerome Preston Bates’ solid, loyal Kent. But De Shields’ reedy-voiced royal isn’t nearly as imposing interpretively as he is physically (few Lears can have stripped to a G-string to reveal six-pack abs), and his daughters not only don’t seem like sisters but appear to have hailed from entirely different acting schools.

The latter half of Preisser’s staging has some nicely flamboyant touches—Gloucester’s eyes are not merely plucked from their sockets but squeezed so forcefully that they explode, spattering everyone within spitting distance—but nothing that fulfills the promise of that opening tableau.