Young Jean Lee's LEAR
Just got back from an outing to see Young Jean Lee’s LEAR at Soho Rep with Claudia L. and WNYC‘s Performance Club. It was really great to see the show with a group of people and then have such in-depth conversation afterwards. There was quite a diversity of opinion about the show which is, in some ways, a return to Lee’s earlier work, in that it seems deeply, intensely personal.
The Shipment was in many ways Lee’s strongest, or at least most accessible show, because she turned her gaze from some of her immediate obsessions and, in a sense, let herself off the hook. It was funny, timely and insightful and surprisingly free of doubt. In LEAR Lee returns to her troubled, anxiety-ridden consciousness, using the context of Shakespeare’s play to mine the fragile emotional territory of loss – specifically loss of a father. I think back to Songs of the Dragons Flying To Heaven, Pullman, WA and Church where Young Jean explored her own fraught relationships to culture, family, identity and religion to make troubling and difficult work. Her gift for poetic language – and the poetry of the pedestrian – is no less strong in LEAR yet her structural sense is more sophisticated. At the same time she has set herself the enormous challenge of going up against Shakespeare. It takes professional courage to do that and emotional courage to be as naked as Lee is in LEAR.
At first it doesn’t seem that she is revealing much at all – the show opens on a lavish set with opulent costumes and a ritualized Elizabethan dance introducing us to the characters: Regan, Goneril, Edgar and Edgar. Two sets of children who have, respectively, cast out their fathers to die in the elements. The first phase of the play makes us believe we are in for downtown snark. They are four unpleasant people confined in a claustrophobic court, plagued by doubt and self-recrimination, taking it out on each other. But slowly the show starts to unwind and the cracks begin to show. They duel in pairs, they pick at each other, they try to take each other down. Cordelia returns to create further disharmony. Each of the characters has a spotlit monologue revealing their inner processes. It is only when Goneril desolately complains, “How lonely it is in this mind” that one begins to suspect that the claustrophobic set is Young Jean’s cranium writ large, that these are the embodied voices in her head, wrestling with Lear, wrestling with interpersonal communication, wrestling with loss.
Then the play truly starts to break down. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I’m not going to reveal all of the various changes in mood from faux Shakespeare, to re-enacted Sesame Street, to Pete Simpson’s simple and touching monologue near the end. I will instead resort to a tired metaphor and say that the show is like an onion, peeling away layers, moving from the ornate to the simple, an act of reduction that mirrors the stages of grief. One begins by intellectualizing it away, eventually moves into this almost child-like place of anger and refusal and eventually moves into acceptance. It is a difficult journey and LEAR mirrors that.
People have asked why King Lear himself is not in the play and, without asking Young Jean, I have a thought. King Lear is not in the play because LEAR is about the loss of a father. Therefore it is in his absence that he attains pervasive presence. He is nowhere and yet he looms large over the landscape of the play. And just as each of the characters wrestles with impending fatherlessness, we can see this (i know I’m being heavy-handed) as an updated version of existential angst about the absence of God. God is Dead – you killed him.
There’s so much more to say but, unfortunately, I didn’t take notes to work from. Let me just say that I found LEAR to be a challenging and ultimately rewarding, deeply touching work and I would encourage you to see it.
All of which brings up a slightly different point which has been on my mind lately. It is one thing to review shows, it is quite another to follow the work of an artist over time. I saw a show recently that didn’t quite succeed, one that I had seen before in a different iteration. My seat mate looked at me in surprise and said, “You saw that before and you came back?!” Yes, I did. Because worthwhile artists deserve multiple visits, in fact they require multiple visits. It is important when possible to see a body of work, to analyze how it grows and changes over time, to give artists room to grow and change. Sometimes artists succeed sometimes they fail – but to dismiss any single work out of hand is irresponsible. What fascinates me is watching artists wrestle with their obsessions over time and learn from their investigations. That is the difference, I think, between art as commodity and art as culture – culture needs to be nurtured and needs to be appreciated in context, not merely for its entertainment value in the short term. I’m not particularly interested in consumer-focused entertainment product, I’m interested in long-term discussions over years. We should try and break out of the consumerist trap and be willing to let people “fail” – understanding that it is all a process.