Paul Lazar, April Matthis, Okwui Okpokwasili, Pete Simpson, Amelia Workman
Young Jean Lee
Those looking for comforting, unoriginal theatre should stay away from writer-director Young Jean Lee’s Lear, currently playing at Soho Rep. Lee’s latest play, a loose spinoff on the Shakespeare’s King Lear, imagines the time his daughters spend biding their time while their father is caught in the storm, stringing together various theatrical flourishes to create a unique, erratic, and occasionally quite satisfying piece of theatre.
Amongst a consistently fine cast, Okwui Okpokwasili stands out as Goneril, her deadpan delivery serving as a stark contrast to the hardscrabble realism of Regan (April Matthis) and the sickly sweetness of Cordelia (Amelia Workman).
Set in the throne room of Lear’s castle, the play begins ordinarily enough – with a dance. Though Lee’s modern dialogue (including a comedic discussion of Buddhism) sets the off-kilter tone from the get-go, things only get stranger and stranger as the evening proceeds. The fourth wall is broken, a game of monarchical role-reversal is played, and a very special episode of Sesame Street is reenacted along the way. As Lear’s three daughters – as well as Edgar and Edmund – come closer and closer to madness, the absence of the monarch begins to take a greater and greater toll in Lee’s exploration of death and grief.
Each strange, distressing turn seems calculated by the playwright to elicit an appropriately provoked response, a quality that is both a strength and a detraction as regards the production as a whole. There are extraordinarily effective moments, as when Edmund delivers an eleven o’clock monologue about his father. Similarly jarring (and brilliant) is Edmund’s surprise turn as Big Bird in a restaging of a scene from Sesame Street revolving around the death of the character of Mr. Hooper.
On the one hand, there isn’t much that really congeals about Lear. There’s not much of a story (certainly less so than in Shakespeare’s play), and there’s little in the way of a unifying style to thread the various pieces of the evening together. Lee, a fixture of the downtown theatre scene, has a way with words that supersedes much of the need for conventional plotting, but even her dexterity as a playwright can’t quite erase one’s hope that Lear felt more of a whole.
On the plus side, along with the fact that Lear is at the very least consistently engaging, the play is given a top-notch production by Soho Rep. A regal throne room set by David Evans Morris, complete with an ornate gold frame, is complimented by stylish period costumes by Roxana Ramseur.