Performance Club Takes On Lear

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.