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A CurtainUp Review
King Lear has rightly been called a pure sob of a story. It is the lamentable tale of a father abused by his children, and his tragic journey through madness to redemption. But the meaning of Shakespeare's story really goes beyond its plot line of filial ingratitude to the total spirit of the work. The real tragedy of Lear lies in his foolishness, his belief that he is protected from the "agues" of life. Only when this king turns beggar, and is turned out by his two cruel daughters can he learn that he isn't "ague-proof." Ultimately, he goes through a spiritual crisis, and realizes that love is all.
In Nearly Lear, Hamnett reworks Shakespeare's tale, telling the story through the eyes of a cross-dressed fool called Norris. But as the intricate plot unfolds, she inevitably shifts into a multitude of personas including Lear himself, his three daughters (Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia), Gloucester, and a villainous servant named Osmond. In these various guises, Hamnett debates and teases out some philosophical conundrums inherent to the myth. But she and Tankus have diluted the original tragedy by adding theatrical high jinks to the black play. What's more, Hamnett's musings unfortunately, didn't appear to register at all with the younger members of the audience who often seemed restless and chatty during the show.
Admittedly, any artist who retools a Shakespearean drama walks a fine tightrope, and must consider a number of tricky questions: Does one diddle with the traditional language? Can any scenes be effectively consolidated? Which characters should be eliminated or invented? No doubt Hamnett asked all these questions and evidently allowed herself poetic license on each. The result is a whittled down text with many famous speeches cut away, a renamed character (Edmund becomes Osmond) and an invented fool called Norris. Hamnett further altered the story by eliminating Edmund and Kent, and trimming Shakespeare's sub-plot about Gloucester and his two sons. The sorry result is that the fierce grandeur of the tragedy is missing. While one can be swept along by the buoyancy of Hamnett's approach and the dramatic energy she generates, it ends up feeling more like a rollercoaster ride in a theme park than a genuine dramatic journey.
Time and again, Hamnett just tries too hard with repeated attempts to make the tragedy's larger-than-life scenes accessible to everybody. In her staging of the wild rain storm ("It's the worst storm in the whole of English literature!"), Hamnett's Norris goes right into the audience with a household sprayer, squirting several unsuspecting folks with jet streams of water. But instead of illuminating anything, this reduces the pathos of the scene to a sitcom situation.
Theatergoers who are reluctant to sit through the juggernaut of a traditional Lear might take to this truncated version. She does cover the story in just 75 minutes and when laughter is in order, she can certainly milk deliver. Ultimately Nearly Lear is only a shadow of Shakespeare's King Lear. One might do better renting a video of Peter Brook's classic film adaptation which also streamlined the story but to better effect.
Editor's Note: The New Victory is one of New York's treasures for families seeking affordable, quality entertainment . They've mounted lots of outstanding shows, ranging from acrobatic entertainments to classics, so they can be forgiven for this somewhat less than all thumbs up attempt at a shorter, more young audience friendly take on Shakespeare.