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If, as Ted van Griethuysen opined in a Style section interview this week, the trick to King Lear lies in nailing the Bard’s problematical opening scene, then he and everyone associated with the Shakespeare Theatre’s season opener deserve kudos. The scene—in which Lear seals his own doom by dividing his kingdom between two greedily sycophantic daughters while disowning their sister because she’s too honest to match their honeyed phrases—is being well and fully nailed at the Lansburgh.

Nailed from the instant the rusted-iron shell of Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili’s magnificent Blade Runner-industrial setting lurches to the heavens, revealing the skittish, modern-dress courtiers who are about to present the king with a table-sized birthday cake in the shape of England. There’s a stiffness to these people as they talk of parentage and duty. And when Lear strides on, still a commanding figure in his dress uniform, though betrayed by faint quivers of hand and quavers of voice, you see that the stiffness is a reflection of an unbending monarch.

Lear means to slice his cake—and his kingdom—into thirds, giving the rich center section to his beloved Cordelia, whose voice (“ever soft, gentle, low”) is, in this production, evocatively silent as Monique Holt signs the role while others say her lines. Lear’s Fool (Floyd King) speaks for her in this first scene, and in his hesitant, reluctant translation of her gestures, it’s easy to read the court’s nervousness at the simple truths she signs to her father. Her sisters, Goneril (Tana Hicken, choked by a fur collar that frames the malice in her eyes) and Regan (Jennifer Harmon, hard and cold in a feathery hat and spike heels) began an orgy of fawning when Lear asked for an accounting of their love for him. They intuited what the king’s jester knows better than anyone: that directness is not the way to Lear’s heart.

In most mountings of the play, directors find ways to make physical the sudden rift between Lear and his youngest daughter, either by putting distance between them on stage or by having the king push Cordelia away when they argue. But director Michael Kahn uses this production’s nontraditional casting to create a far more visceral, evening-defining image. When this Lear grows impatient with what his daughter tells him, he doesn’t pull away; he all but tackles her, forcing her to her knees as he grabs her hands to still the thoughts they’re expressing. It’s as shocking as if he’d knocked her teeth out with a blow. And it says worlds about the intimacy of the relationship that’s being severed.

The rest of the scene is similarly sharp, and it’s precise enough physically that it seems almost choreographed. As Cordelia’s suitors, foppish Christopher Wilson is so frivolous with gesture and David DeBesse so warmly embracing that you know instantly which way that suddenly dowerless courtship must go. The formality with which Lear’s chief ally, the Earl of Gloucester (David Sabin), approaches his legitimate son, Edgar (bubbly, tuxedoed Cameron Folmar), and his bastard son, Edmund (two-faced, leather-jacketed Andrew Long), makes sense of his later misreading of them both. Lear’s mental slippage is quickly telegraphed when he momentarily forgets an associate’s name. And all hope that the royal family might reconcile dissolves forever in the tears the Fool sheds while uttering Cordelia’s acid farewell to her sisters.

Kahn has seen to it that subsequent scenes are just as strikingly acted and are punctuated by genuinely arresting visuals—as when Regan’s husband uses one of his wife’s spike heels to gouge out Gloucester’s second eye (the first having been popped out with a crowbar). Still, by the time the evening arrives, some three corpse-strewn hours later, at its conclusion, you may find yourself more respectful than moved.

Partly this is a matter of the subsidiary characters’ becoming so fascinating that Lear’s own story starts to seem less compelling than theirs. Bad guys generally tend to be more fun than heroes, and this production, by fleshing everybody out, ends up with what might be called a surfeit of villains. Not just Regan, Goneril, and Edmund, but folks you’d barely notice in a less nuanced mounting, like the Duke of Cornwall (a casually cruel Ralph Cosham) and Goneril’s servant (Patrick Ellison Shea, who gets tripped, slammed, beaten, and slapped without ever seeming remotely empathetic).

Nor are the secondary good guys relinquishing the stage to the title character as easily as usual. DeBesse’s King of France (who learns to sign so he can speak with Cordelia), Henry Woronicz’s hot-tempered but loyal Earl of Kent, and William Whitehead’s slow-burning Duke of Albany all make major claims on the audience’s sympathies. And Floyd King appears to have waited his entire career to play this particular court jester, investing the Fool’s relationship with Cordelia with an intelligible, if nonverbal, backstory while delivering his fool’s wisdom in everything from rap rhythms to an arms-up riff on “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.”

Van Griethuysen’s aged king is certainly capable of holding his own on stage with any of these folks. He is, in fact, a subtle, intelligent, intimately involving Lear—foolish but loving, commanding and articulate yet terminally confused. Still, in a production with so much competition, those qualities make him one of many intricately conceived characters rather than the evening’s main focal point. I’m not a big fan of bombast, but when van Griethuysen delivered Lear’s anguished “Howl, howl, howl” on opening night, I found myself wishing he’d chosen a more histrionic route to the king’s pain.

That said, the production is engaging throughout, from the Reaganesque political nuances arising from the decision to do it in modern dress to the persuasive storms whipped up by Howell Binkley’s eerie lighting and David Van Tieghem’s sound design. It’s so intriguingly conceived, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine patrons—even Bardophiles who think they can recite the lines right along with the actors—not finding it pretty fascinating.

Though Woolly Mammoth’s original production of Nick Darke’s The Dead Monkey had plenty of fans, no one at the company’s darkely hilarious revival is likely to be reciting any of its dialogue along with the actors. The author’s way with words is way too improbable.

Besides, even if you know that the line coming up in this tragicomedy about an over-the-hill surfer dude, his wife, and the ape that comes between them is “I’m gonna withhold monkey from ya, Hank, until ya start treatin’ me like a monkey,” how in heaven’s name would you inflect it?

Sarah Marshall, reprising her role from the first production, curls her lip around the “with” in “withhold” and snarls the syllables around it in a voice that’s part Bette Davis, part John Wayne, and sultry enough to suggest that there’s a triple-entendre in there somewhere. I’m certainly not going to be the one to say her nay.

Darke’s play is all about sex and dominance, of both the simian and the human variety. It’s also about a nostalgia for youth, which we like to think of as strictly human, but, frankly, who knows? Kansas Board of Education objections notwithstanding, the social strategies of apes and men have enough in common that it seems perfectly reasonable of director Howard Shalwitz to have his performers struggle with each other for supremacy while adopting stances usually seen only on the Animal Planet network.

David Marks’ Hank is the dominant male in his family unit—which accounts for the submissive, nonthreatening postures that Marshall’s Dolores assumes when he’s around. But when he’s elsewhere, she’s not above flirting with an interloper—say, the veterinarian played by Bruce Nelson—and therein lies the household’s problem. Hank is a traveling salesman—which means he’s nearly always on the road, alone with his thoughts while Dolores sits home killing time with their pet monkey.

None of these folks are brain trusts. “We’re livin’ in the armpit of an opera singer’s vest” is a representative sample of what passes through Hank’s mind as he’s “gunnin’ down the highway.” The vet is given to locutions like “I’m no doctor, but if your wife was an elephant, she’d be dead.” And Dolores has potential, but she’s stifled, and the monkey (back when he was alive) apparently got the better of her most of the time. By the time the lights have come up, he’s died of old age, but he’s still having a big enough impact on their relationship that she and Hank decide to try to replace him. The vet provides a baby pig named Dogduck (don’t ask), and Hank dreams of re-creating the days when he used to surf with a monkey on his back. Alas, surfing with a pig on your back doesn’t have quite the same cachet.

Now, it may occur to you that substituting “child” for “monkey” in this plot would make the play a good deal more conventional—sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Ape? with a beachfront setting—though doing so would also raise questions of incest and cannibalism, so maybe it’s a wash. What’s certain is that while Darke’s method is quirky, he’s exploring some fairly basic questions about relationships in The Dead Monkey.

He’s also—and for audiences this is at least as important—creating characters who pretty much beg for over-the-top performances, and that’s what Shalwitz and his company are giving them at Woolly Mammoth. Marks hurls his considerable bulk around the stage, scratching and picking at his stomach as if to the jungle born. Watching him relive his glory days as a surfer by hanging five atop the kitchen table is an experience no patron will soon forget. Nelson’s jibbering, chattering vet has an upper lip with a mind of its own, Terry Thomas’ taste in pith helmets, and an amusing way of eating yogurt with a tongue depressor. And Marshall is flat-out marvelous, whether she’s curled in the fetal position on a windowsill or making an entrance in a scarlet power suit that makes her look so assured and striking that she got wolf whistles on opening night. CP