“Ladies and gentlemen,” a preshow announcer’s voice tells us solemnly, “the show you are about to see is an inaccurate distortion of Shakespeare’s King Lear.” He then announces a brief pause, underscored by tinkly mock-Elizabethan music, so that those unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s play can study the program synopsis. Thus begins Young Jean Lee’s Lear, at Soho Rep. The line’s seeming redundancy—aren’t all distortions inaccurate by definition?—demonstrates Lee’s truthful precision with words, even while she’s using them as sense-wreckers.
Lee’s Lear, it turns out, is indeed both inaccurate and distorted vis-à-vis the original. Its virtues come from its free-hearted willingness to pursue either path—inaccuracy in its version of Shakespeare’s story or distortion in its effort to make that story fit the one Lee wants to tell. Its shortcomings, inevitably, stem from trying to follow both roads at once, ultimately shortchanging both Lee and her source. But the zigzagging route she takes to this ultimate failure is full of exhilarating, illuminating moments.
In Lee’s version, set in the throne room of a garish pop-art Elizabethan palace (scenery by David Evans Morris, costumes by Roxana Ramseur), Lear himself remains offstage, wandering in the unending storm, presumably the source of the ominous electronic rumblings (sound design by Matt Tierney) that rattle the tiny auditorium, and of the abrupt lurches into darkness that periodically douse Raquel Davis’s lights. Only children occupy this palace: Lear’s daughters, Regan (April Matthis) and Goneril (Okwui Okpokwasili), kept company by Gloucester’s sons, Edgar (Paul Lazar) and Edmund (Pete Simpson), whose father, blinded by Regan, has likewise been turned out into the storm, where Edgar may or may not have left him for dead.
Regan and Goneril have no husbands; nothing’s said of either Edgar’s disguise as Tom of Bedlam or Edmund’s betrayal of him. Halfway through, Cordelia (Amelia Workman) arrives, her marriage to France having collapsed, to be welcomed by her sisters with polite loathing. There’s no Kent and no Fool; no mention is made of Lear’s madness, of governance, of war, or of the people. The closest the script gets to politics is Edgar’s remark, “Our father was a traitor,” which goes unexplained and unchallenged. Apart from Edmund, a floridly self-dramatizing romantic in the early-19th-century vein, guilt-racked over having betrayed his father, everybody onstage is terribly acceptive about everything. No wonder the topic of Buddhism gets batted about.
Not that awareness of Buddhism makes Lee’s father-haunted characters any happier. Goneril wastes away in anorexic remorse; smug Regan has bad dreams; Cordelia frets over her inability to love. Edgar, complacently materialistic half the time, is riven by inner doubts even more extreme than those that motivate his brother’s flamboyant emotional flip-flops. Literally stepping outside the action, Edgar gets to convey the script’s philosophic core, strolling up the theater’s aisle with the house lights turned on, asking us rhetorically not only what we think life means, but why we’re wasting our lives watching this play—or any play.
This wacky blend of “To be or not to be,” Beckett, and Pirandello is triggered by one of the show’s few dramatic events: Goneril, having felt guilty enough to go searching for her father in the storm, on her return “becomes” Lear, exploding the sisters’ tense relationship into a festival of recriminative, obscene accusations. After Edgar’s audience-hectoring monologue has broken the fourth wall, the evening shifts course again, at last tackling openly the source of its overhanging storm clouds: grief at the loss of a father.
But King Lear is no longer its reference point, though the section contains the one piece of actual Shakespearean text in the work: Lear’s threnody over Cordelia’s dead body. The focus here is on Edmund, who has now apparently become Sesame Street‘s Big Bird, perturbed over the loss of Mr. Hooper, while the others become the street’s human denizens, trying to explain death to him and help him accept his grief. No Buddhism here: The scene closes on a litany of loss, a marathonic monologue that Simpson handles with an immaculate blend of understated clarity and heart-rending vulnerability.
Looking back from this powerhouse final moment, one easily sees what Lee has meant the preceding play to be about. But despite the provocative inventiveness of her dialogue, the scenes she has come up with convey very little. Flecked with teasing hints of commentary on King Lear or on our time, they amount to distractions from the big subject she’s avoiding, the death of a father. Each scene, exciting or not in itself, is no more than a tidbit of dynamism embedded in an overall stasis. The event lacks cumulative energy until Lee finally confronts the matter she’s been postponing, at which point it opens up emotionally.
But her Shakespearean metaphor, by then, has been replaced by the-much-closer-to-home Sesame Street. (Part of the last scene’s success is the simple gravitas with which Lee’s directing keeps the sequence from sliding into the jocular tones of that other Sesame Street tribute, Avenue Q.) Had she dealt more fully with King Lear, she might have accessed her core emotion both sooner and more substantively. Or she might have left her Shakespearean consciousness behind and faced her own concerns directly; all she seems to want to say about Shakespeare’s great, tormenting work is that it shares some feelings with us, which is not news. Whereas her dialogue makes clear that she has a great deal to say for herself, and doesn’t need to hide behind Shakespeare or anybody else.
If she wanted to tell her own version of Lear’s story, as Edward Bond and other playwrights have, that would be a different matter, but the need to comment on King Lear and the need to tell a story of one’s own are two different things, and one can’t make them the same just by wishing it so. The inaccurate retelling of Shakespeare’s story and the distortion of it to fit her own never merge, which is really a pity: Her ability and her intelligence, both of which are evident throughout, might have welded them into something extraordinary.