Friday, January 15, 2010


Grade: B-

Photo: Sara Krulwich

Written and Directed by Young Jean Lee. At Soho Rep through February 6

Young Jean Lee's latest has sold out its initial run and been extended, all before the reviews came in. And what a mixed bag they are! From Matt Windman's outright disgust to Sam Thielman's glowing enthusiasm, it seems that Young Jean Lee's deconstructed take on the younger generation of protagonists from Shakespeare's tragedy is a bit of a rorschach test. David Cote's review in Time Out makes for juicy reading, given that he folds into a defense of the play an impassioned argument for what he believes theatre in America should be.

Variety A-
(Sam Thielman) Meanwhile, back at the palace, everyone's trying to avoid discussing the way they blinded that one old man and kicked the other one out into the storm. Young Jean Lee's deceptively free-form "Lear" starts out as a bug's-eye view of Shakespeare's great tragedy, exploring some of the Bard's pettiest characters as they pick at each other during the moments they're not onstage in "King Lear." But as the show moves forward, Lee uses that play and some beautifully unconventional additions to flesh out Shakespeare's themes of loneliness, mortality and filial responsibility in gratifying and moving depth.

Time Out New York A-
(David Cote) In Lear, Young Jean Lee’s self-described “inaccurate distortion” of the classic, she banishes the title monarch and Gloucester to the wings and focuses on the younger generation: Goneril (Okpokwasili), Regan (Matthis), Cordelia (Workman), Edgar (Lazar) and Edmund (Simpson). The absurdist, meta-Shakespearean results are by turns irreverent, grotesque and morally harrowing. The writer-director and her outstanding actors plumb the depths of a bona fide existential crisis: hating unto death those who gave you life.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) 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.

That Sounds Cool B+
(Aaron Riccio) Asking Lee "Hey, what's the big idea?" is exactly the point--what, in King Lear, is the big idea, and does it require any of King Lear, let alone Lear himself, to express it? Instead of struggling with the weight of Shakespeare, Lee chooses to follow the Buddhist leanings of her characters, which is to say: "When a thought runs into your head, you just label it thinking and it helps." So why not have Cordelia (Amelia Workman) whine about bedbugs? The subtext, at least, remains true to the biggest idea of all, the one secretly under all our thoughts: our mortality.

Gothamist B+
(John Del Signore) All in all, it's a slippery, elusive hour and a half, and though her Lear is ultimately baffling, Lee's digressive script is executed with hilarious precision by her all-star ensemble, comprised of some of downtown theater's brightest minds. There are moments of soulful contemplation about the pain of watching parents move closer to death, but the dominant motif is that of eccentric, stream-of-consciousness over-sharing. In the end, the non-narrative Lear dissolves into a verbatim reenactment of the 1983 Sesame Street episode in which Big Bird learns of Mr. Hooper's death. It's as strange and unexpected as it sounds, and while Lear might defy comprehension, it's never boring or predictable

TheaterMania B
(Patrick Lee) Thanks to stretches of textured poetic writing, the show's bizarre novelty, and the wow factor of David Evan Morris' set, the play steadfastly holds the audience's interest even if it's not always as thematically coherent or emotionally fulfilling as one would wish...There are wonderfully vivid flashes of savagery even in the characters' pleasantries -- Lee's gift for lacing language with startling juxtapositions keeps the ears open -- but the overwhelming selfishness of these characters wears thin very quickly in the deliberate absence of dramatic movement. The monologues, strikingly written and performed, afford us momentary glimpses into the depths of the characters' souls, but they are disconnected from the rest of the play's action by design.

Lighting and Sound America B-
(David Barbour) I'm sure there's a rigorous theory behind all this; watching it, however, I was dogged by the image of Young Jean Lee throwing ideas at a wall in order to see what would stick. Sad to say, many of her topics fall solidly into the "banal" category, and none of them are enlivened by their treatment here. It would be easier to dismiss Lear in its entirety if the production wasn't so accomplished.

Backstage C+
(Mitch Montgomery) Lee's able staging presents these detached children within the opulent confines of David Evans Morris and Roxana Ramseur's traditional Elizabethan scenic and costume design. Content to submerge themselves in the excellent fopperies of their lives (who looks fat, who looks old, who's not feminine enough anymore—any signs of age or decline that might one day get them thrown out into the storm), they come across with hilarious catty nastiness. But soon Lee's Shakespearean proxies dissolve, as though she has tired of the exercise, leaving the actors to play themselves in direct address to the audience. Though the cast members acquit themselves with sincerity in this transition, it proves too jarring a maneuver even for Lee, and the overall weight of her material feels diminished.

NYTimes D+
(Charles Isherwood) [an] intermittently funny but mostly flailing attempt to excavate new meanings from the consideration of a celebrated text. From perhaps the most imposing something in the theatrical canon, Ms. Lee has constructed a big, fat nothing...If you set aside any hopes that “Lear” will illuminate Shakespeare’s original, you can enjoy the lurches from loony lyricism to blunt contemporary speech. And there are a few affecting moments, in which we can see glimmers of Ms. Lee’s more general purpose, to write her own meditation on the painful fact of mortality, and the enveloping darkness from which we come and to which we will return.

NYDaily News D-
(Joe Dziemanowicz) It’s a cocky writer, or maybe just a foolhardy one, who crafts a scene in which an actor trots into the theater and pointedly asks the audience: “Is this really what you want to be doing with your life? Being here?” Playwright and director Young Jean Lee creates exactly such a moment in Lear at Soho Rep. And since she’s put the question out there, the answer is no way.

NYPost D-
(Frank Scheck) Lee, the playwright/director whose "The Shipment" was a scathing, periodically brilliant satire of race relations, seems to be foundering here. Although at times deeply felt, particularly in one wrenching monologue concerning the mortality of aging parents, "Lear" often undercuts its thematic ideas with silly provocations. After a while, the relentless onslaught of raunchy behavior, scatological language and period anachronisms is more tiresome than illuminating.

On Off Broadway F-
(Matt Windman) Few moments in drama are so emotionally wrenching as the final scene in "King Lear." Lear, Young Jean Lee's five-person adaptation of the tragedy, is also painful to endure, but in a very different way. You see, Lear is simply a really, really bad play.

V A- 12;TONY A- 12; TSC B+ 11; GOTH B+ 11; VV B+ 11; TM B 10; LSA B- 9; BS C+ 8; NYT D+ 5; NDN D- 3; NYP D- 3; OOB F- 0; TOTAL: 95 / 11 = 8.63 (B-)

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