Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Lear's Leftovers

The play gets off to a great start, but ending is precisely what gets Lee's play into trouble. Perhaps that's partly the point. We no longer live in a world of misguided kind old men like King Lear--such tenderness and uncertainty has been cast away long ago into the storm and the aftermath is not pretty. If we survive at all, Lee suggests, we are the violent, superficial ones, cocky, manipulative, self-absorbed. Primo Levi might agree. Each time a character comes close to showing raw vulnerability or hints at inner morality, Lee conjures up some counterpoint to undercut the moment of sincerity. As members of the audience we are reined in by the actors' strong performances, only to be boomeranged back into the cruel world--the only true ending?--for foolishly believing in a character's genuineness. We too are outcasts from the post-Lear world unless we, like Lear's daughters, keep the play and its emotions safely at arm's length.

So when the play shifts gears halfway through, intellectually there is a point Lee is making. We mustn't feel comfortable for too long. When Edgar (the sibilant Paul Lazar) steps off stage and directly addresses the audience, the titters and squirms this produces only exemplifies this. Here Lee's desire to be the playwright-puppetmaster-manipulator par excellence includes disturbing our comfort with theatrical conventions as well. And the awkwardness the audience clearly feels stands again in direct contrast to Edgar's entreaties to care better for one another. How is Lee caring for us here?

There are a number of failed endings we sit through as the connection with Shakespeare's "King Lear" disappear altogether. Lee has tacked a number of what seem to be smaller failed ideas for plays onto the tail end of this one, forcing us to recallibrate several times if we care to try to understand what is going on. Yet just as we begin to get used to the idea that Edmund has nonsensically suddenly become Big Bird, he becomes a man telling a story about his father and a piccolo. We keep being asked to readjust, but it gets tiring, not so much because of the request but because of what we are being asked to readjust to. As we confront yet another non sequitur, what Lee presents us with goes from good to worse. But she refuses to end, drawing explicit attention to the problem of ending that each playwright must confront. Indeed by taking on"King Lear" as she does, she is suggesting that it too is a play that does not and cannot entirely be put to bed. While death and its pending inevitability haunts almost every scene of "Lear," in theater, at least, it appears we can always start again.

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