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Written and directed by Young Jean Lee
At the Soho Rep
Starts January 7, 2010
By Alexander Harrington.
In Young Jean Lee's play Church, a minister directly addresses the audience saying, "Your spiritual bankruptcy is reflected in your endlessly repeating conversations about your struggles to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit junk food, quit caffeine, quit unsatisfying jobs and relationships – and this is what you talk about when you're trying to be deep." In her play The Shipment a white yuppie (played by a black actor) threatens to commit suicide and murder his party guests over his loneliness and dissatisfaction with his life. His equally prosperous white friends (also played by black actors) have been venting their insecurities.
In Lear, Young Jean Lee sets characters from what many consider to be the most devastating of tragedies to similar navel-gazing. As the younger generation of Shakespeare's play sits around an ornate Tudor throne room wearing gorgeous Tudor clothes, which leave no doubt that they are well-healed royals and nobles, Edmund the bastard worries that he is a bad person because he sees everyone as fat, while Goneril concurs that it is, indeed, evil to imagine that people who are not fat have such an unspeakable flaw. Goneril is also repulsed by the skin of old people. Regan suggests that Edmund try Buddhism. Edgar is frustrated to the point of rage that people take it for granted that he will be decent, reliable, and responsible.
These characters, however, are not merely trivial and vain; their Narcissism goes hand-in-hand with cruelty. Shakespeare has supplied Lee's characters with their most brutal acts: Goneril's and Reagan's casting their father into the storm, Edmund's betrayal of his father, and Reagan's blinding of Gloucester. Lee provides them with some nastiness that is more accessible to her 21st audience. Goneril confesses that she is charming and sweet to people only in order to manipulate them.
Later in the play we discover that this inhumanity and deceitful playing of power games stems from fear. When Goneril speaks of her father's suffering, Cordelia says, "That's life," prompting Goneril to realize, "Then it'll happen to us." Later Reagan describes a dream she's had about
a filthy-faced woman with eyes full of fear who said that there'd been a rape. "A rape?" I asked. "When?" And she said, "A few minutes ago. Run!" And just as she said the word "run" another woman grabbed me and held me fast with weak fingers. She spoke of the things she would do to me, meditating on the pleasures. As she spoke her wig would shift and I could see her real hair underneath, which was short and grey and caked with dandruff. She mentioned that there was a dump out back. "It would be a good place to serve you", she said. I knew my body would feel every imaginable horror. I stabbed a sharpened pencil into her hand, and there it stuck. She noticed it not. I said, "I stabbed a pencil into your hand" and she said, "You did, did you? Well, I haven't slept in three days and can't feel a thing." I screamed and struggled, and then woke up. I felt the relief that comes from finding your body safe in bed. And then I remembered that he is in the storm. It is happening to him. He is my father. It is happening to him and it will happen to me. Nothing can stop it.
These confessions of Goneril and Regan's recall a line form Church: "all the greatest evil that has been done in this world has been perpetrated by people who are prospering and terrified, just like you."
Goneril and Reagan are terrified of aging, suffering, and death. In a speech to the audience, Edgar makes the point that we go to see tragedies in order to confront these horrors within the safe confines of fiction: "We enjoy watching horrible things. It gives us a feeling of immunity."
The horror of death is at the heart of King Lear, and at the end of Lear, Lee cuts right to it by juxtaposing Shakespeare's play to Sesame Street. The actors enter as themselves, and Okwui Okpokwasili, who has played Goneril performs Lear's lines over Cordelia's body. The cast then enacta the scene from Sesame Street in which the adults explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper is dead and not coming back. The two scenes share the repetition of the word "never." I was genuinely moved both by Okpokwasili rendition of Lear and the simplicity of the Big Bird scene. The play should have ended on Sesame Street; the monologue that follows, in which a modern-day character talks about his relationship with his aging father, is not as effective as the death of Hooper.
Much of my appreciation for the ideas of Lear is based on a knowledge of Lee's earlier work. Without this knowledge, until the King Lear-Big Bird sequence, the play seems glib. The trivial conversation comes across not as the writing of someone critical of Narcissism and pettiness, but as that of a participant in self-absorbed culture who finds depictions of it to the funniest thing in the world. A good deal of the script is self-consciously bizarre with pretensions to the avant garde. At one point Edmund declares,
I know where you are vulnerable and I will pierce you in your eye sockets for all of the indignities of being a man despite my sword, despite my power. I must not be petted like a cow. I must be fondled in sickness and then cast away in disgust. But I know things that have been settled for generations and I have my rights and my means and I am a man. You must respect my automations.
Lee also fails to remain within the parameters she has set for herself. She has written a play that picks up the story of King Lear immediately after Gloucester's blinding. In doing so, she has given herself the freedom to do whatever she wants after this point in the story. However a disciplined writer engaging in this exercise should make the characters consistent with their actions up to this point in the source material. Thus, to have Edgar, who at this point in the story is wandering about as Tom of Bedlam, comfortably indoors and richly clothed is sloppy. Additionally, to have Edgar declare "our father was a traitor," is jarringly inconsistent with this character at this or at any other point in the play.
April Mathis as Regan, Amelia Workman as Cordelia, Paul Lazar as Edgar, and Okwui Okpokwasili as Goneril all bring an easy spontaneity and intellectual and emotional connection to Lee's highly stylized dialogue. Pete Simpson as Edmund is more superficial and forced, though he is very effective and affecting as Big Bird. Okpokwasili is particularly powerful when she takes on the character of Lear. The Elizabethan set (by David Evans Morris) and costumes (by Roxana Ramseur) are gorgeous.
With Church, Young Jean Lee wrote the most challenging piece of political theatre I have seen in decades. Her isolating of the central issue of King Lear is moving. Lear's facile and sophomoric aspects are beneath her. It is time for her to put away childish things.