The Natural: Michael McKean is Better Known for ‘Big Bottom’ Than the Bard

Can he turn Gloucester up to 11 in the Public’s <em>Lear</em>?

Though Mr. McKean admitted Gloucester is “maybe not a traditionally funny character,” he and Mr. Macdonald have mined the part for whatever humor they can find. The way that Gloucester’s conflict with his two sons echoes Lear’s trouble with his daughters suggests Shakespeare designed the subplot to retell the main story in a different, possibly lighter, key.

“He wants to die repeatedly,” said Mr. Macdonald. “When you get to the point that someone is that depressed, humor is never a million miles away.”

Because Edmund is so sinister and his manipulations of his father so bald-faced, their scenes together offer what Mr. McKean called “comedy with a small C.”

“It’s not funny-haha,” he said, “but the audience is in on it. The puppies are on it, as we say. They’re on the scent.”

Mr. McKean’s world-class deadpan makes such bone-dry humor easier to carry off. Mr. Gilliam, as Edmund, has a harder time keeping a straight face. Waiting in the wings during rehearsal, they watched a scene that ends with Bill Irwin, as the fool, sliding out from underneath Lear’s cape.

“Oh, look,” said Mr. McKean. “It’s like a baby dolphin being born.” Without missing a beat, he marched on stage and delivered his monologue, while Mr. Gilliam quaked with silent laughter at the man whom he watched on Laverne & Shirley as a child. He has worked with childhood idols before, often finding them “full of themselves, or ego driven.” Mr. McKean, he said, “is the complete opposite. He’s completely self-effacing.”

“This week I’m really in love with Michael,” said Mr. Eustis. “There’s not an ounce of Michael when he’s doing Shakespeare that wishes he was English. He talks like an American, and it’s beautiful.”

The worst trap a Shakespeare novice can fall into, according to Mr. Macdonald, is to be “over respectful of the language.” This has not troubled Mr. McKean, who approached Lear as he would any play, enjoying it much as he did the first time he read it. His enthusiasm for the text is so unpretentious that it approaches that of a high school English teacher trying to get his students fired up about the Bard.

“The man is a linguist,” said Ms. Landau. “There’s a facility with and a love of language that’s apparent in every sentence he utters as a human being, and his tweets for goodness sake!”

The scene that gives Mr. McKean chills comes after Gloucester’s blinding, when he prepares to leap off a small hill that his good son, Edgar, disguised as a madman, has told him are the cliffs of Dover.

“It’s a guy who doesn’t want to say goodbye to the world,” he said, “but feels he has no choice. He speaks to the gods and says, ‘I’ve gotta do this. If I could go on without turning on you, then I would. But I can’t. So I won’t.’ But his last thought is, if Edgar lives, bless him.”

It’s no surprise that a man as modest as Mr. McKean admires a character who prepares for death while blessing someone else.

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