By Thom Geier
Updated September 18, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Manuel Harlan

When Ian McKellen first appears on stage as King Lear in the Royal Shakespeare Company production now touring the U.S., it’s in a brief wordless tableau: The aged king, surrounded by courtiers, gesticulates portentously. He could be Gandalf, back in Middle-Earth, or, more likely, a bearded Magneto summoning pixellated special effects. McKellen is a one-man special effect in this tragedy, creating an indelible portrait of a powerful man both past his prime and losing a grip on his faculties. In the production’s most-discussed scene, McKellen steals a page from Daniel Radcliffe’s recent stage debut and drops trou in the heath scene, exposing himself in the most literal way possible. As he struggles in vain to remove his shirt and imitate an unkempt, philosophizing hermit (Edgar, the legitimate son of the loyal Earl of Gloucester, on the run and in disguise), we see Lear with fresh eyes: an addled old man who’d find a welcome place in a geriatric psych ward. Even when Lear regains himself for a moment, he needs the Fool (Sylvester McCoy) to hoist his pants up again. Trevor Nunn, a director best known for audience-friendly hits like Cats and Les Misérables, introduces elements of his usual populist stagecraft, from the Grand Guignol hanging of the Fool just before intermission to the electric sword fight between half-brothers Edgar and Edmond at the show’s end. But despite a generally solid supporting cast, this production stumbles occasionally in both pacing and teasing out connections between its multiple plots. Too often, we’re reminded of just how little stage time the title character has in one of the Bard’s final works. But whenever McKellen returns, our attention is again riveted. His Lear achieves that rare balance between the epic and the intimate. B+

(Sold out through Sept. 30 at Brooklyn Academy of Music; Oct. 5-14 at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater; Oct. 19-28 at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles;