In her 1935 essay “Plays,” Gertrude Stein defines four categories of time that coincide in a theatrical performance: time for the audience members, time for the actors onstage, time inside the playwright’s head, and time taking place outside her “window,” in the world the playwright observes as she writes. Young Jean Lee’s Lear makes use of these four time frames and jarring shifts among them to probe key themes from Shakespeare’s play, such as filial love, mortality, loss, and justice, updated to the realities of 21st century American experience. Lear’s plot picks up at the point in the original story following Gloucester’s being blinded and sent out to join Lear in the raging storm. Regan (April Matthis), Goneril (Okwui Okpokwasili), Edgar (Paul Lazar) and Edmund (Pete Simpson) grapple with the emotional aftermath of rejecting and essentially murdering their respective fathers, as well as the more mundane challenges of living with their own imperfections and getting along with each other. Cordelia (Amelia Workman) eventually joins them, having abandoned her failing marriage with the King of France.
Lear concludes with two much shorter segments, one consisting of a staged scene from Sesame Street in which Big Bird struggles to come to terms with Mr. Hooper’s death, and the other in which Simpson directly addresses the audience with a monologue about his (or Lee’s?) difficulty in relating to an aging parent. These free-associative juxtapositions emphasize the discomfort involved in facing the ideas the original Lear concerns.
The play is a deliberate challenge to decipher. The central conflict seems to lie between the currently popular dogma of positive thinking and the experience of a tragic reality of physical decay and psychological alienation. The characters alternate between reciting self-help mantras to cheer themselves up: “I am Cordelia and I am good and there are fine candy-spun things sweetening my dreams,” and relating revelations about how to conquer their circumstances: “I was in the storm looking for Dad, and at first I had negative thoughts but I just kept praying and soul-searching until I became almost euphoric with peace.” Whenever one of them starts to get depressed, the others jump in to chastise that one for not being optimistic enough, and urge them on towards future perfection. Edgar tells Edmund, “You have the raw material to become something great…One should whittle oneself down to one’s most worthy things and then unfurl them like petals in the sun.”
This discussion is timely, coming at a time when our country is grappling with two wars and an economic tragedy of epic proportions, even as figures such as Tony Robbins and Norman Vincent Peale continue urging us to look on the bright side. By the end of the initial Shakespeare section, it has become clear how logically and easily paralysis and self-absorption can result from this philosophy.
As an adaptation, Lear builds itself upon emotions, images, and language that were central to the original Lear, rather than plot and faithful characterization – those attending this production with hopes of seeing anything that is obviously similar to the Shakespeare version are sure to be confused and disappointed. The theatrical nature of the presentation is emphasized throughout. As is the case in a Stein play, the audience is alternately drawn into the scene onstage during dialogue portions and jolted out of it as the actors address the audience, and as the language references shift from the Shakespeare plot to the modern-day world we inhabit. Before the Sesame Street transition, Lazar challenges the audience to leave, even asking the stage manager by name to dim the lights to make it less embarassing for members to do so.
The script’s only possible flaw is that the Shakespearean portion seems to go on a bit longer than it ideally should, and starts to get tedious before the scene shifts. If five minutes or so of this material were cut, the production would most likely benefit.
The set design, by David Evans Morris, and costume design, by Roxana Ramseur, present the audience with an over-the-top opulence that interfaces well with the script and performances. The sides of the throne room are lined with dramatically flickering candles, a nice touch by lighting designer Raquel Davis. The sound design by Matt Tierney offers atmospheric storm sounds at appropriately dramatic moments, and somehow he manages to make the entire house vibrate as if shaken by nearby thunder.
The cast is uniformly stellar. The actors grapple successfully with Lee’s often challenging language and skillfully represent a wide range of emotions, from petulance to despair. The choice of black actresses for the sister roles not only allows these women a formidable opportunity to showcase their talents but also makes the production a more universal comment on modern American society.
It is delightful to see a unique, challenging script given the resources to live up to its potential. The sold-out run has already extended twice – get your tickets for the last week while you still can.