Performance Club Takes On Lear

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Friday night a group of us braved the elements for the first P. Club outing of 2010: Young Jean Lee’s “Lear” at Soho Rep. Then we went to Walker’s for several hours and hashed it all out (booze and buffalo chicken wings, mmmm).  Here’s what I’ve been thinking about since:

1. Paul Lazar could read me the phonebook and I’d be in theater heaven. Is there anything the man can’t do? This is another knockout Lee cast: April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Pete Simpson, and Amelia Workman. Though I do think the men were given richer material, allowed to be a bit stranger and unaccountable, while the women were too fully offered up as foils for the epic emotions sweeping through the play. One might be tempted to draw some connections between the three literary daughters and Lee; to head that nonsense off she, smart lady, dedicated the play to her father, “who is nothing like King Lear."

2. It was good to see “Lear” on the heels of Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which uses (poorly) remembered retellings of that Shakespeare play to create an absurd collage approximation of the original. Before seeing either, I had talked on-air about how both works belong to a larger shift in the way artists are dealing with canonical material. For Young Jean Lee, who has an unfinished dissertation on “King Lear” lurking in her past, the play functioned as an emotional shorthand for a state of terrible loss and guilt: Since we all know at least the basic story, she was able to use that shared knowledge to catapult to a place of extreme emotion from jump.

3. Those emotions seemed too big, or too close to Lee, to be manageable. The play kept feinting and dodging, unable to stay close to the grief at its center but unable to move away from it. I have a feeling Lee isn’t nearly done with this material, that this may be the first of many “Lears.” It’s a messy work, not nearly as tautly rendered as her previous play, “The Shipment.” Yet, like her characters, it’s all the more interesting for its failures.

Now, your turn!  Leave your comments below.



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Comments [10]

Claudia La Rocco

Hey Karinne ... thanks for this! I pretty much agree with everything you say except that I think our holding onto the term "avant garde" like grim death is more a symptom than a cause of our inability (errr ...refusal?) to adequately contextualize or even really spend time taking in contemporary work.

Feb. 06 2010 10:08 AM

I'm still digesting what people have been saying here and elsewhere about Lear, and working on my own little bit for the next Poetry Project newsletter... but brief preliminary thoughts (not on Lear, but on the conversation around it):

I think part of why we don't have a metric to talk about ill-behaved plays (god bless) is that we keep thinking they are avant-garde. I think the concept of the avant-garde does a total disservice to our collective intelligence; it preserves the idea of contrariness when in fact most people writing now are writing with the tools they've developed to organize their own experience of the logic of the world. To shunt fragmentation etc. into some agro category of "avant garde" (or pomo) is to me hopelessly undermining, a kind of red herring that assumes that some old referents are still (and always will be) in place.

If the avant garde seems like the most traditional thing you could do, maybe that's because people are working in this community in the tools of their time--this is our tradition (again, god bless). What's unusual is not to be fragmented or not to be aware of the stratas of sesame street mingled with shakespeare in our common possession of a literature which helps us make sense of the world, and create our own contributions inside of it.

The vocabulary might come if we didn't keep acting like these structures are somehow contrary in their essence, and not actually what I find them to be: actual ways to build things like plays.

To me this is most evidenced in the way negative reviews assumed YJ's Lear to be a gloss or comment instead of an inhabitation.

from a self-proclaimed member of the deep rear, ung(u)arded, and minor,

Jan. 27 2010 01:29 PM
Claudia La Rocco

You'll have to join us for the next outing, Aaron. Feb. 19 ... announcement coming soon...

Jan. 26 2010 10:19 AM

I would have loved to be a part of this Performance Club outing to Lear. I hated the first third of the play, the part that seemed rooted in the trappings of the old, but Lee justified it as she grew more absurd within those contexts, inserting grief--and Lear's madness--into the actual structure itself. (I like Andy's take, that Lear is absent to show the loss, but then again, you might also say--based on memory--that Lear is there, is always there, like the God of his metaphor.)

For me, the really telling point is that when Lazar asks us to leave if we don't enjoy the show, nobody does. Whether that's fear, or whether that's pleasure, it's proving her point. And from that moment on, the rest of the show was an absolute delight that broke my heart more than once, particularly with the final three words, which I found more epic than anything I've ever read--once, if not twice removed--in Shakespeare.

I put my full thoughts here:

Jan. 21 2010 03:39 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Hmmmm, interesting thoughts, Kirk. I don't think there's any debating your stance on the avant-garde being traditional at this point, or at least a tradition in its own right. Is that necessarily a negative?

Might you care to answer any of your questions?

Jan. 20 2010 11:10 AM
Kirk Bromley

I enjoyed this show. I actually almost cried, and I really laughed in a new way during the speech by Lazar about wanting to be a singer. I thought all the actors were wonderful. And yes, you're right, Claudia, the men were given "more" in the sense that the women were wearing giant stiff sculptures and the men little black crinkly diapers. Any actor can tell you which is preferable for the goal of being endearing.

Ms. Lee, as you have no doubt come to realize by now, you are a writer of unique and pleasing extravagance. You have schooled well with Wellman, you have quixotically morphed your own instincts into words, you have submerged yourself willingly in the crazy process, you really seem to have something you need to say, and most importantly, I think, you have a rare ability to meld dramatic emotion with analytic abandon. Way to go.

But I wonder what it is in you that keeps you from being what makes me feel as if you're being all you want to be?

See, I left the show feeling like avant garde is just about the most traditional thing one can do in the theater these days. Fragments, wild thematic leaps, wacky speeches, depersonalized interpersonal impersonations, touching down but hovering over the feeling, copying (Sesame Street, in this case), being ironically inexplicable, and what I'd call "advocating for stupid" just seem so standard now. And so I think, Ms. Lee, or anyone, I'd like to hear your thoughts on a few things...

Ala Eliot in "What is Minor Poetry?", any thoughts on why yours feels like Minor Theater?

Ala Eliot again, what's your take on the "objective correlative" in theater...the string of actions that elicit the emotion? Necessary? Considered? Crap?

To what extent is the way in which you advertise yourself as an absorptive writer (you dive into your subjects and struggle to explicate them) not quite right given what seems to me to be a penchant for pushing your issues away from you so you can thrash them around until you don't recognize them?

Jan. 18 2010 12:23 AM
Claudia La Rocco

Great review, David. Love this line:

"the path of least resistance is to announce that you’re confused and bored—or worse, unimpressed."

I haven't read many of the "Lear" reviews yet, but that line made me think of the reaction I often have when certain choreographic works are dismissed as "not dance." Like, didn't we fight these battles years ago???! Fine if you don't like it, but do better than that...

After dinner the night we saw it, several of us were saying much the same thing you did about "Lear" with respect to "The Shipment" - not so sleek (great word), and yet ... perhaps, in the end, more interesting.

Yes, A., I agree - too big can be great. But sometimes Lee's solutions irk me, when they tend toward cool distancing. It's like she's in the dirt, telling us, "I'm not really dirty, you see, I'm just commenting on the state of being in the dirt."

Jan. 18 2010 12:22 AM

One of the things I've been thinking about is how much I love that Lee is tackling these emotions that are maybe too big and too close to be manageable. I see a lot of contemporary performance that feels kind of too cool, too ironic, to look genuinely at these life or death/ depth of life kinds of questions. I am personally most interested in experiencing her kind of art that is reaching for the biggest questions of all. Art as a communal, secular, version of religion?

I think she sometimes walks an edge between showing me, helping me experience these big questions and then sometimes going a bit too far into telling me about them--almost lecturing or giving a sermon. For me it's more powerful when a little less is said and bit more just felt. On the other hand those lectures feel quite Shakespearean and seem to be a danger that is inherent in working with this kind of material.

And David and Andy, I love the ways you both invite, demand, us to give art and artists the room to grow and be undefined. Hear, hear!

Jan. 15 2010 06:24 PM
David Cote

Good points all. You may be right that Lee will revisit the play and edit it or restructure it, which might be a good thing. I'd listen to just about every cast member in Lear read a telephone book or laundry list. As for the critical reception to Lear, it's all over the map. Whether or not you like it, though, I find it dismaying how few critics are able or willing to put the play in the context of downtown theater. My review for TONY is at and they are generally aggregated here:

Jan. 15 2010 05:31 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Hey y'all, just as a P.S.: If you haven't seen Andy Horwitz's take on "Lear" at Culturebot, his essential-reading blog, please check it out:

Thanks for the kind words, Andy - we feel the same...


Jan. 15 2010 01:43 PM

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About Performance Club

Open to everyone, the Performance Club is a freewheeling conversation about New York performance of all kinds, from experimental theater to gallery installations to contemporary dance. We go, we talk (online and at bars and cafes, with artists and amongst ourselves), we disagree and, sometimes, we change each other’s minds.


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