By JK Clarke
I’ve always contended—as have many others who care about such things—that while editing or abridging Shakespeare’s plays for the purpose of a production is not only acceptable but, in fact, usually necessary. Conversely, adding to the text—either through one’s own words or pieces of another great writer’s—is strictly verboten, a literary sin of the highest order. But within these objections is the realization that such augmentations occur, and as long as they do not package the production as an actual Shakespeare play, most Bardophiles are willing to look the other way. And that brings us to Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know, a new production from Smith Street Stage. Though the bulk of the play is made up of Shakespeare’s King Lear, it is not entirely Lear, as the title suggests through the use of a line Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” (a nonsense word that is also used in King Lear, during Edgar’s “Poor Tom” rambles). Indeed a few other writers are thrown into the stew of this play.
The outer shell of Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know is a tale of discovery. A young girl (Aileen Wu, looking generally awed) is playing in her attic. It’s clear she has a fertile imagination, particularly when, upon reading out loud from a few books (Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Tennyson, etc.) she happens upon King Lear, which captures her interest and causes the characters to come to life. She interacts with them on various levels, ultimately playing the role of Cordelia. From this moment on we are launched into a heavily edited and somewhat altered version of King Lear. Director Beth Ann Hopkins is also responsible for the adaptation, which can only be described as puzzling. She has directed an otherwise terrific version of this great play, which is marred only by her alterations. Some primary characters, like Goneril’s steward Oswald, are completely absent, making for some inexplicable scenes. Gone is Kent’s antagonistic relationship with the arrogant courtier, making not only his entrance (in disguise) into Lear’s retirement retinue implausible, but his eventual punishment at the hands of the Duke of Cornwall, which predicts and precipitates Lear’s exile into the storm: “How came my man i’ th’ stocks?!”
Smith Street Stage is an exciting company that has shown adeptness with Shakespeare productions in the past (an excellent Richard III in Carroll Park in the summer of 2017) and could very easily have made this a memorable King Lear. There was no shortage of great acting, from Louis Butelli’s complex portrayal of the mad king himself; to Noelle Franco’s harlequin Fool; to Pete McElligot’s Kent (who curiously and convincingly develops an Irish accent upon going into exile); to Sarah Dacey Charles’ compassionate Gloucester; to Jonathan Hopkins’ sympathetic Edgar. And staging elements set the table for an innovative interpretation. Steven Brenman created a set that delightfully promoted the young girl’s imaginative discovery of the play; as did Charlotte McPherson’s clever lighting. And it was Sherry Martinez’s utterly extraordinary costumes that set the mouth agape. Goneril’s (Hannah Sloat) dress, a playing card theme, combined elements hearkening the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland, right down to a fan made of cards. At one point, her dress, along with Regan’s (Ashley Scott) magnificent and ingenious gown comprised of long ladies gloves were unfurled to create supernaturally powerful figures of the newly empowered sisters. Darlin Hallinan’s sound design made effective use of familiar classical works, from Beethoven to Satie, though the volume was turned up so high at times that dialog was lost to the notes.
Writers and theater companies have had the audacity to attempt to augment Shakespeare since the day he died, over 400 years ago: from celebrated 17th century poet John Dryden to the Victorians to respected contemporary Shakespeare companies and these attempts have consistently fallen short. So it’s hard to understand why Smith Street Stage chose to stage a mashup version of King Lear. It’s a play that works beautifully on its own and is a fabulous play for introducing newcomers to Shakespeare. This version, sadly, is not. It is, in fact, destroyed when the powerful and dramatic ending (with powerfully moving mini-eulogies by both Edgar and Kent) has more added onto it, completely shattering the drama of the moment. A simple, straightforward approach to Shakespeare by as competent a company as Smith Street Stage would surely deliver a first class production. One hopes they choose that route.
Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know. Through September 22 at A.R.T./New York Theatres (502 West 53rd Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues). www.smithstreetstage.org
Photos: Evan Felt