Contrived horrors after fathers never come back home: Young Jean Lee's LEAR at Duke Theater Studies

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LEAR

Duke Theater Studies
Sheafer Lab Theater
closed April 14

Faye Goodwin as Cordelia, in Young Jean Lees LEAR
  • Les Todd/Duke Theater Studies
  • Faye Goodwin as Cordelia, in Young Jean Lee's LEAR
In the current PlayMakers Rep production of Cabaret, would-be American novelist Clifford Bradshaw says that 1932 Berlin is “like a bunch of kids playing in their room—getting wilder and wilder—and knowing any minute their parents are going to come home.”

Young Jean Lee’s LEAR has a similar feel to it, with one marked exception: In this case, the parents are never coming home—not after King Lear and Gloucester, the fathers of the quintet we ultimately see on stage, have both been stripped of all power and banished to the storm, presumably to their deaths in this interpretation.

In the absence of such gods, the children in this bizarre redraft have already turned quite feral. The varying mixtures of mania, malice—and panic—in their eyes suggest kids who’ve gotten permanently lost while playing hide and seek in grownup’s bodies. Their impulsivity and increasingly radical swings in mood and focus speak to characters who’ve only just discovered that their games now have no frontiers, no exit—and no end.

So far, so interesting. In Young’s vision, the refinements of a ruling class have gradually crossed over into opulence and psychosis, if not mutation. Those dynamics are fully realized in a trio of performances director Jody McAuliffe has crafted with actors Jazmine Noble as Goneril, Madeleine Roberts as Regan, and particularly Faye Goodwin as Cordelia. In Sonya Drum’s costumes and the equally skillful (but uncredited) wigs and makeup, the daughters’ almost—but not quite—flawless skin and hair recalls the exquisite porcelain horrors of painter Ray Caesar, and more than hints at the madness and corruption underneath.

Madeleine Roberts as Regan, in Young Jean Lees LEAR
  • Les Todd/Duke Theater Studies
  • Madeleine Roberts as Regan, in Young Jean Lee's LEAR
But after a promising beginning, we keep waiting as scene after scene becomes bogged down or sidetracked in vapid small talk, unvarnished telegraphy (as in Edmund's early line, "I suck!") or verbal filigree. Roberts’ emotional velocity compels for a while, and we’re taken with the degree to which Goodwin and McAuliffe create an immaculate Cordelia who fully lives up to Young’s scripted stage direction: “There is something inexplicably terrifying about her.” The witty social criticism of developments like Buddhism in pop culture divert us for a time as well.

But, like any performance choice relied upon too heavily, LEAR's gothic, psychosexual surrealism, which might have been lifted whole out of a Max Ernst collage novel, finally descends into the unconvincing, if not the ridiculous. In one joyless scene, for example, we encounter this meaningless jabber: “You will find something far greater than all your parts…a knock-kneed badger! With antlers on!”

With revelations of that caliber, it’s unsurprising that, mere moments later, when our audience was invited to find something better to do with our brief lives, a patron actually took the scripted permission to leave the theater.

Ultimately, it's significant that two of the most compelling scenes in Young’s script actually were lifted, verbatim, from other sources: a 1983 episode of Sesame Street dealing with the death of Mr. Hooper (which has seen renewed circulation on YouTube in the days since the Boston Marathon bombing), and an almost identically named script, by a frequently disputed author from the 16th century.

Jazmine Noble as Goneril, in Young Jean Lees LEAR
  • Les Todd/Duke Theater Studies
  • Jazmine Noble as Goneril, in Young Jean Lee's LEAR
A notable exception occurs in the final sequence. Actor Max Tabet’s monologue about a man being tormented by his father’s slow death is followed by strobe-lit depictions of silent home movies. It’s every bit the emotional body blow that McAuliffe describes in her program notes.

Before that, though, Young’s script dwells overlong on the self-obsession and hollowness of its characters. Its post-postmodern pretensions too often clog the lines of communication.

It’s tempting to call LEAR a gleeful abomination. It clearly aspires to that. But ultimately, this work feels more like an ill-advised indulgence, or psychoanalysis placed on stage: an overinflated seventy-five minutes of survivor guilt that stays too clever and grandiose too long to truly move us.

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