This Bizzaro World premise, evoking Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which looked at Hamlet from the perspective of the prince’s schoolmates, sounded intriguing. But what really got me interested in Lear was the reception that an earlier Lee work, The Shipment, drew last year. Lee, who’s 35, was born in Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when she was only two but The Shipment took an audaciously satiric look at society's deep-rooted stereotypes about African-Americans.
The critics went wild for it and the production’s short run at The Kitchen was extended, although not long enough for me to be able to get a ticket. So I put in my bid early when I heard that Soho Rep was going to present Lear because I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was all about.
Lee was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Berkeley and writing a dissertation on King Lear when she suddenly decided to become a playwright. She says the first show she saw once she got to New York was a Richard Maxwell play at the Performing Garage, which caused her to fall in love with experimental theater and jump into the downtown scene, apprenticing, writing, directing. But she didn’t completely sever her connection to King Lear.
When her father became ill, Lee started writing her own Lear. The two older men were in her original version but after she watched a workshop, she cut them out and centered her play around the younger generation (in this production, Lear’s three daughters are black and Gloucester’s two sons white) and the feelings of anger, guilt and responsibility that grown children feel toward aging parents. Lee has said that she wanted “to make the audience cry” in the same way that she did as she wrote (click here to watch a YouTube conversation about the play between Lee and Soho Rep’s Sarah Benson).
Alas, most of the play lacks that kind of emotional punch. The exceptions are two soliloquies. The first is taken directly from King Lear and spoken to great effect by Okwui Okpokwasili as Goneril. The second comes near the end when Pete Simpson, the actor playing Edmund, steps out of character and talks movingly about a dying parent. But the rest of the play is so self-consciously affectless that it keeps the audience at a remove.
Part of the problem is that Lee, who also directed the production, doesn’t trust her audience. An insert in the program offers a partial synopsis of King Lear that might serve as the text for a children’s book. Near the show’s end, the characters break the fourth wall to explain themselves and the play. At one point Paul Lazar, who plays Edgar, asks the audience "What are you doing here? Is this really what you want to be doing with your life? Get up and run. Run away and do something better." In fact, Lee herself seems to be running away from her play, as though she’s not sure what to do with it.
The audience—which included Mikhail Baryshnikov— the night my friend Jesse and I attended the show arrived ready to cheer it on. People started laughing before the characters even finished saying Lee’s lines, many of which drew their humor from the glaring discrepancy between the elegant Elizabethan costumes and set (grandly designed by Roxana Ramseur and David Evans Morris) and the determinedly anachronistic modern-day speech. But the applause seemed uncertain at the play’s abrupt end, which came barely 90 minutes after its start. Jesse, who loves unconventional stuff, looked unsatisfied too.
The critics have been divided. The New York Times, New York Post and New York Daily News gave Lear thumbs down. But it got high fives from Variety, the Village Voice and especially Time Out New York (click here to read all of them on Critic-O-Meter). And it's added to the ongoing debate over the sanctity of Shakespeare (click here for a bit of that). I don’t think the Bard, who regularly pilfered plots from other playwrights and scrambled them around, would be bothered by Lee’s reimagining of King Lear. And we shouldn't forget that old Will was in the artistic vanguard of his day. But what he kept in mind, and Lee seems to have forgotten this time out, is that you need to be razor sharp if you want to dance on the cutting edge.