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Lear: That Old Man I Used To Know
The time has come,' the Walrus said, To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships — and sealing-wax &mdash
Of cabbages— and kings —And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.'

— Excerpt from Lewis Carroll's poem "The Walrus and the Carpenter," incorporated into the opening scene of Lear: That Man I Used to Know
Lear: That Old Man I Used To Know<
Aileen Wu and Louis Butelli (Photo Credit: Evan Felts)
Thanks to Smith Street Stage, Shakespeare's King Lear is returning to Off Broadway in a new version entitled Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know. Conceived and whimsically directed by Beth Ann Hopkins, this production just settled in at A.R.T Theatres (at the Gural Theater) and invites viewers to take a new look at the old classic.

Here's the premise. A young girl tearfully runs away to her grandmother's attic. She wanders through its dusty spaces and shortly discovers a handsome-bound copy of King Lear. As she opens the cover and begins to read aloud its first scene, the words literally leap off the page and creatures and characters emerge out of nowhere to re-enact the story. What unfolds over the next two and a half hours is the Girl's mental materialization of Shakespeare's drama.

Hopkins fuses Shakespeare's language with verses culled from Lewis Carroll, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Dylan Thomas, and Emily Dickinson. The result is a rich tapestry of poetry that spans four centuries. Although some purists might fault Hopkins for mixing jabberwocky with the Bard's iambic pentameters, other theatergoers (including yours truly) are likely to welcome this juxtaposition and mingling of literary styles.

While the poetry is a feast for the ears, it's the juicy roles in Lear;—and seeing them surreally performed—that is the real draw of this outing. The acting is uneven but a few performers shine; most notably Louis Butelli in the eponymous role. Although Butelli isn't overly ripe in years, he still manages to convey the mad monarch's physical and mental feebleness. Butelli also possesses the stamina that is required for him to go the distance in this epic-like production. This outing clocks in at just under 3 hours including two intermissions.

Other performers also speak their Shakespeare trippingly and look at home on stage. Aileen Wu, doubling as the Girl/Cordelia. Wu taps into the sincerity and modesty of her dual-characters and fluidly shifts between personas. Wu's Girl significantly carries a fool doll with her throughout, parting with it only when she insinuates herself into her Cordelia character.

A shout out too for Noelle Franco who performs the Fool with balletic grace. It's no accident that her character bears an uncanny resemblance to the Girl's doll or that Wu's Cordelia and Franco's Fool are often seated cheek by jowl when watching their stage-mates perform their scenes in the play-within-the-play.

Slightly missing the mark are Hannah Sloat and Ashley Scott, as Lear's cruel daughters Goneril and Regan. While they are serviceable in their parts, they lack the primal fury and fire required of their roles.

If performers sometimes fall short, the creative team don't. Steven Brenman's set will speak to all those pack-rats in the audience (you know who you are) who can't let go of their past. Charlotte McPherson's half lighting adds a pallor to all the tragic goings on. Sherry Martinez' costumes are child-like early on but gain a more martial air as the domestic scenes fade out and the wars explode.

If you like classical music, this is your Lear. Smith Street Stage's resident composer Elliot Roth serves as music director and gives the audience a smorgasbord of Beethoven, Handel, Chopin, Satie, and his own original music. What could be better than Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" following Edmund's "this is the excellent foppery of the world" speech? The musician's romantic vision of a moonlit evening sharply contrasts with Edmund's contempt for astrology and mocking his father Gloucester for believing in it. Roth similarly revivifies other classical gems like Chopin's "Nocturne in E Minor" and Satie's Gymnopedie, deftly folding them into scenes to intensify the dramatic effect.

. Hopkins' Lear is a bit of a puzzler. Just who is this Girl who has such a vivid imagination? And why is she so drawn to the story of Lear? Although I won't be a spoiler and reveal any more about the mysterious young protagonist, suffice it to say, this experimental theater piece is intriguing for trusting you to read between the lines.

The real take-away from this new adaptatio is perhaps simply that Shakespeare's myth can be dusted off and meaningfully reimagined for today's audiences— which happens to be the continuing mission of the creatives at Smith Street Stage

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Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know
Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know
Based on William Shakespeare's King Lear
Adapted and directed by Beth Ann Hopkins
Cast: Louis Butelli (Lear), Sarah Dacey Charles (Gloucester), Pete McElligott (Kent), Aileen Wu (Girl/Cordelia), Noelle Franco (Fool), Jonathan Hopkins (Edgar), Alex Purcell (Edmund), Ashley Scott (Regan), Hannah Sloat (Goneril), Vanessa Butler (Cornwall), Kieron Anthony (Albany), and Christa Kimlicko Jones (Mother).
Sets: Steve Brenman
Lighting Design: Charlotte McPherson
Sound Design: Darin Hallinan
Props Design: Tony Leone, Sherry Leone, Gary Dolan, and Ashley Seltzer
Magic Props Design: Tony & Sherry Leone
Costume Design: Sherry Martinez
Fight Choreography and Assistant Direction: Alex Purcell
Stage Manager: Kelsey Vivian
A.R.T./New York Theatres (at the Gural Theater), 502 W. 53rd Street (between 10th and 11th Avenues). Tickets: $15-$30. For tickets and more information, visit online at
From 9/05/2019; opening 9/08/2019; closing 9/22/2019.
Wednesday through Saturday @ 7pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees @ 2pm.
Running time: 2 hours; 30 minutes with 2 intermissions.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 9/07/19

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