Georgia Shakespeare's ‘King Lear' nearly perfect

“King Lear” is Shakespeare in existential mode. When Cordelia tells her father that she has “nothing” to say about her love for him, the king’s mind snaps, and he eventually loses everything: his reason, his kingdom, his three daughters. “Nothing can come of nothing,” indeed.

In Sabin Epstein’s exquisite new Georgia Shakespeare production of the tragedy, the bleakness unspools against a towering chain-link fence and a soundscape that evokes the static scramble of wartime radio broadcasts. While battles rage, Lear’s daughters wear jaw-droppingly glamorous gowns. And his Fool is a disfigured clown in a bowler hat who seems to have wandered in from that other great play about nothingness, “Waiting for Godot.”

Elegantly designed by Angela Balogh Calin (sets), Christine Turbitt (costumes), Mike Post (lighting) and Clay Benning (sound), this somber bookend to a summer season that opened with the frivolously entertaining “Shrew: the Musical" is that rare theatrical moment in which an entire ensemble seems to be working at the height of its powers, and a very old tale feels freshly minted and modern.

A good deal of the credit must go to Tim McDonough’s Lear, who brings such formidable presence to the character that his spirit permeates the room even when he’s offstage. McDonough is the genuine article, and the consistently fine Carolyn Cook (Goneril) and Courtney Patterson (Regan) make for a particularly sharp-clawed study in evil. If Park Krausen doesn’t have quite the dewy vulnerability we equate with Cordelia, her muscular, unfussy style plays nicely against soppiness and sentimentality.

Daniel Thomas May, as Edmund, is so cool that we almost forget he’s the villain; yet notice how he plays with the word "legitimate" in his opening speech. This is a very coy and very dangerous man. The Duke of Albany is a small role, but consider how splendidly terse Brad Sherrill’s Albany is when he challenges his bad seed wife and her sister. As Edgar, posing as the nakedly mad “Poor Tom,” Joe Knezevich is devastating, every bit as affecting, perhaps, as Lear and Cordelia.

Speaking of "nothing," Gloucester (Allan Edwards), whose eyes are plucked out in a scene of horrific realism, gets handed plenty of it. Newly blind, he squirms like a worm suddenly ripped from the ground, and later stares (as it were) into the abyss on the cliffs of Dover.

This brings us, finally, to the Fool, played by Chris Kayser with the air of a Beckett clown and the tics of an aphasia victim. Though it's probably not intentional, Kayser's reading almost feels like a tribute to the late Joe Chaikin and Gene-Gabriel Moore, theater artists who transcended disabilities to great comic effect. This daring, unexpected turn somehow heightens the mocking tone of the Fool, and plays up the absurd dimensions of “King Lear,” which presaged Samuel Beckett's "Godot," Eugene Ionesco's “Exit the King," and the hard-core existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. In a play that incites sorrow, pity and comedy so dark that it’s almost nauseous, Kayser brings a stroke of tender madness to a ravishing and nearly perfect production.

Theater review

“King Lear”

Grade: A

In rotating repertory with "Shrew: the Musical" and "Love's Labour's Lost." Through Aug. 7. $15-$45. Georgia Shakespeare, Oglethorpe University campus, 4484 Peachtree Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-264-0020,