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A CurtainUp Review
Challenge is part and parcel of the experience of going to see a Lee play. But it's always a high wire act of the first order, and when the performance fails the disappointment is magnified. There's nothing more frustrating for a critic than watching a production which promises things it ultimately doesn't provide, and Lee's new play Lear at the Soho Rep delivers this frustration in spades.
Of course Lear draws its inspiration from Shakespeare's play, but as the pre-show announcement makes clear, it's at best an "inaccurate distortion" of the original work. Beginning immediately after the blinding and expulsion of Gloucester, neither the play nor its characters (Regan, Goneril, Edmund, Edgar and Cordelia) really pay any attention either to him or to the former king; instead, they use the incident as a springboard to discuss their own fears of mortality and illness. "I'm going to feel what he feels," Goneril says, though any sympathy we're tempted to feel for her (or any of the others) is repeatedly undercut by their astonishingly shallow obsessions; for example "Sometimes I feel sad at [funerals] but other times I feel like, look at all the fashion."
Well-rounded characterizations are clearly not part of Lee's plan. Even Cordelia is dislikable, not an easy feat to pull off where King Lear is concerned. But then Lear isn't concerned with King Lear in the first place. Modern language, profanity and sexual images pepper the dialogue and, as the play wears on and the action of its characters become ever more bizarre, the production becomes a meditation (sort of) on illness, death, and the effect those conditions have on the ones left behind. Beneath their outwardly repulsive veneers, all the characters are pitiful in their own twisted ways. Each gets a chance in a monologue to elicit that pity from those watching . . .without much success (with one notable exception, which I'll return to in a minute).
"I suck!" Edmund cries at one point, and the audience is inclined to agree. There's little appealing about any of these people. So maybe that's the point: we suck. Or more precisely, our reactions to uncomfortable things like illness suck, and we ought to think more about how to live better and love more. Or perhaps the point is that we can't do these things, and ultimately we're all just sad, petty, bitter people with little to offer each other or ourselves. Any of these would be reasonable tacks to take. Even a suggestion that there's no meaning at all to be drawn from the events we experience could have value. But this is the fundamental disappointment of Lear: as the play continues, the action becomes so incoherent that eventually all that's left is the metaphorical performer falling from the high wire, and the sight isn't pretty.
At one point the Shakespeare background gets left behind completely in favor of a discussion among the characters with Big Bird — not a representation of Big Bird, not a distortion of Big Bird, but actually Big Bird, who talks about sesame seed milkshakes and draws pictures of Sesame Street characters. This exchange was greeted by nervous, bewildered laughter from audience members who must have been wondering what metaphor it was missing.
Even this would be fine, even admirable, if there was some sense of, well, sense, or even senselessness. But as constituted the production, which Lee claims is as much a "collaboration" with her actors as her own individual work, has no narrative throughline, nothing to ground the audience's experience. Absurdism has important things to say, but even Pinter and Pirandello tried to say them in a relatively unified fashion. Here Lee has a hard time keeping with one idea long enough to make it stick, and the result is an unsatisfying mix of angst and uneasy humor. All of this is a particular shame because the actors are so good in performing difficult (because inconsistent) characters, especially Okwui Okpokwasili whose nuanced portrayal of Goneri shows both range and power. Given something more to work with, the actors could have driven Lee's vision to a considerable height. But even during the genuinely moving moments —such as the final monologue, in which actor Pete Simpson compellingly describes his character's ambivalence and grief at his father's illness — something intrudes to undercut the power of the moment (in this particular case, a brief strobe-lit scene accompanied by an oddly distorted blues song).
Maybe that's the concept: nothing means anything after all. But if that's the point Lee was trying to make, I'm inclined to wonder why the shadow of Lear's presence, or Shakespeare's story, or even a play itself was necessary.