NEW HAVEN -- Although you wouldn't know it from the way he's usually taught and too often performed, Shakespeare should get people buzzing at the end of his plays, and when one of his plays is done right, there's nothing like it in the theater.
This "King Lear" starts out as if it's going to be one of those experiences. The program tells you that director Harold Scott and actor Avery Brooks have moved the story to Mesoamerica, a region that included much of Mexico and part of Central America and was populated by the Olmec people between 1200 and 400 BC. The program states that the Olmecs were an African people; hence an African-American cast.
Lear's divvying up of the land among his daughters begins with a huge celebration featuring African dancing and a procession down the aisles set to the superb score of Anthony Davis. A giant, stone head dominates the stage.
This is all great theater, but when the production gets down to Shakespeare, nothing pretty much comes of nothing. For all the accoutrements, this is the Bard at his most tedious.
The one something in all this is John Douglas Thompson, who repeats his amazing (though here more subdued) performance of Edmund from last summer's Shakespeare & Company production. In fact, this is great advertising for the Lenox-based troupe because Johnny Lee Davenport also reprises his performance as Kent.
Thompson's exquisite physicality, combined with the priggishness of most of the acting onstage, makes Edmund, the scheming illegitimate son of Gloucester, something of a rebel angel, akin to William Blake's Lucifer or Doug Wright's Marquis de Sade from "Quills."
But in Lenox, Thompson could play off the equally ferocious Jonathan Epstein as Lear (even though the two characters rarely appear onstage together). Here, Brooks is such a hammy, doddering Lear and Roslyn Ruff such a goody-goody Cordelia that you almost root for their downfall. So much for redemption and forgiveness.
There are other good performances besides Thompson's and Davenport's, but not many that keep the attention from straying. And the only buzz heard afterward was: "The bastard was great. I really liked the bastard." Somehow, that doesn't seem like the mark of a great production of "King Lear."
("King Lear" a play in five acts by William Shakespeare; At Yale Repertory Theatre through March 13; 203-432-1234.)
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.