Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Photo/Blaine Davis

It takes a few moments to realize that Lear is not an adaptation, and your cheated confusion is part of the fun. After all, David Evans Morris's set is simultaneously regal and chilling, a narrow chamber with flickering lights and sudden blackouts; Roxana Ramseur's lavish costumes are wonderfully bloated and colorful affairs; and writer/director Young Jean Lee begins in the middle of King Lear, with Regan, Goneril, Edgar, and Edmund (April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Paul Lazar, and Pete Simpson) making small talk about the nature of evil as their fathers--blinded, mad--wander about the raging storm outside. But asking Lee "Hey, what's the big idea?" is exactly the point--what, in King Lear, is the big idea, and does it require any of King Lear, let alone Lear himself, to express it? Instead of struggling with the weight of Shakespeare, Lee chooses to follow the Buddhist leanings of her characters, which is to say: "When a thought runs into your head, you just label it thinking and it helps." So why not have Cordelia (Amelia Workman) whine about bedbugs? The subtext, at least, remains true to the biggest idea of all, the one secretly under all our thoughts: our mortality.

Thankfully, though Lee's structure often provides the subtext for the entire play (as in Church's belief-questioning belief, or in The Shipment's game-changing reversal), she realizes that dramatic stasis--even when intentional--is still tedious, and shakes things up all at once, as Lazar pulls off his facial hair and implores the audience to make the most of their moments. Leave the theater, immediately, if you feel bored. (Nobody did, which shows either how rooted we are in wasting our lives or in how captivating it is when the fourth wall is broken; either way, Lee makes her point.) Simpson then enters, arms gripping legs, his head between them--he's now recreating moments from Sesame Street, particularly the episode in which they speak, to children, about the death of Mr. Hooper. This segment, too, is a "springboard" (to use Young Jean Lee's words), and works admirably well in contrast to the grandiosity of King Lear--there is nothing inherently "better" about the language of Shakespeare than Sesame Street, so long as you get something out of it. In fact, the simplicity of Big Bird's grappling with the not-coming-backness of death may be more powerful, more relatable, more present. Is it necessary to rage in a storm before we are heard?

No, and in the final minutes of Lear, Lee continues to strip away plot, character, costume, and set, speaking more and more directly to that quickening end--the play itself serving as a sort of mortal coil. Simpson stands alone--in character, but it's hard to tell--thinking about how hard it is to watch his father slowly die now, and yet how unbearable it will be when his father actually dies. The play ends at a funeral, with Simpson repeating three words, over and over again, and need there be anything more than that? Given the frustrations of the initial scenes, which now seem so far removed (though the emotions of the actors were true, particularly as a mourning Goneril channeled Lear), Young Jean Lee has distilled dramatic purity--"I'll miss you"--and that moment, inconsistent and vulnerable, is far more epic than anything in Shakespeare.

1 comment:

Culturist said...

"The subtext, at least, remains true to the biggest idea of all, the one secretly under all our thoughts: our mortality." - great line