CHELSEA — Since the fall of 2015, when he was named artistic director at Gloucester Stage, Robert Walsh has had to juggle acting and directing opportunities with the administrative duties of running a theater company. So presumably he’s had to be rigorous about which roles he chooses to take, and where.
In tackling the title role of “King Lear’’ in a production by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, where he is a founding member, Walsh chose well. So did director Doug Lockwood in casting him.
Not all of Lockwood’s choices pay off to the same degree, and some are outright questionable, but his ambitiously conceived production — which unfolds in a vague “near-future’’ in a setting containing decrepit electronics and radiating a quasi-institutional vibe — is often quite gripping.
Much of what compels our attention is the visceral charge Walsh brings to the fury, bafflement, and anguish of a Lear who genuinely, if arguably, considers himself “a man more sinned against than sinning.’’
Walsh powerfully captures the king’s growing sense of emotional isolation and powerlessness in the wake of his repudiation and expulsion into the stormy wilderness by his two uncommonly cruel daughters, Goneril (Jade Guerra) and Regan (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan), after he has rashly spurned the daughter who does love him, Cordelia (Marya Lowry), because she refuses to go fulsomely over the top in voicing that love the way her sisters do.
The universe is a desolate place in “King Lear,’’ and family bonds don’t count for much, but in Lockwood’s interpretation Lear’s isolation is linked not just to the betrayals by his daughters but to the unstoppable ravages of old age. The director writes in a program note that the idea for his “King Lear’’ began to take shape while listening to a friend describe the permutations of his father’s memory and personality as he was dying, and the father’s “blurred sense of reality.’’
So there’s an extra layer of resonance to Lear’s agitated query “Who is it that can tell me who I am?,’’ when he begins to realize that his transition from monarch to mere man has left him vulnerable. After he begins to descend into madness, Walsh no longer wears the blue military jacket with gold buttons he began the play with but rather, first boxer shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt, and then a patient gown of the sort seen in hospitals and nursing homes. When Walsh’s Lear slumps in a chair and stares at a flickering TV on Jon Savage’s deliberately drab set at Chelsea Theatre Works, he could be summoning memories and shadows from the past.
It must be said, however, that for a significant chunk of the play, the athletic Walsh (who also works as a fight director) is a shade too physically vigorous as the embattled monarch, at times more closely resembling a Henry V gone prematurely gray than the aged Lear. (It also must be said that it is a tonal misstep to begin the production with Walsh’s Lear groaning offstage on the toilet.)
Lockwood’s decision to stage this monumental tragedy with only seven actors, which requires doubling by everyone but Walsh to handle a multitude of roles, yields mixed results. (By the way, all seven of those actors are barefoot, which seems to be the trendy fall look. When David Byrne performed his “American Utopia’’ last month at the Emerson Colonial Theatre, Byrne and his cast also performed sans shoes or socks.)
On the plus side, it affords Louis Reyes McWilliams the chance to display a very impressive versatility as he transitions skillfully from evil Edmund to his noble half-brother Edgar to Edgar’s masquerade as Poor Tom, a crazed beggar. (My only quibble with McWilliams’s excellent performance is that he too casually tosses off Edmund’s “Now, gods, stand up for bastards.’’ As a crucial moment that sets the stage for much of what subsequently transpires in “King Lear,’’ that line needs more oomph than McWilliams gives it.)
In other instances, the cast doubling is confusing or detrimental to the play’s impact. It makes sense for an actress as gifted as Lowry to play Lear’s Fool, and indeed she is first-rate in the role, but it makes less sense to also have her portray Lear’s daughter Cordelia. And what should be the single most harrowing moment of “King Lear’’ — when the Duke of Cornwall plucks out the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes after Edmund has betrayed his father the earl — is undermined because Steven Barkhimer plays both Gloucester and Cornwall (the atrocity is enacted behind a white screen).
No screen gets in the way, thankfully, for much of the absorbing action in this “King Lear,’’ including the wrenching climax, when the grim workings of fate have all been revealed and Walsh’s grief-maddened Lear howls his loss into an uncaring void.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Doug Lockwood. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Chelsea Theatre Works, Chelsea, through Oct. 27. Tickets $25-$60, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on [email protected]