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Review: ‘Lear’ at Single Carrot Theatre

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 Go call your dad. I’m not even kidding.

By the time Young Jean Lee published Lear, in 2010, she was already le dernier cri in New York theater. The New York Times called her “A rising star of the downtown theater scene;” New York Magazine said she was “the clearest indication that the avant-garde isn’t dead, and has never been funnier;” Time Out New York lauded her as “one of the best experimental playwrights in America.” With Lee’s reputation as The Next Big Thing, Lear sold out its initial run and was extended – all before its first review was published. When the reviews did come in? Most critics hated it. Lear was “a hot mess… [a] misfire” (The New Yorker) and “a big, fat nothing” (New York Times). On Off Broadway said it was “painful to endure… simply a really, really bad play.”

Chloe Mikala as Cordelia and Tim German as Edmund in Lear. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

So why am I telling you about a terrible play? Because I don’t think it was necessarily an issue of quality, but of expectation. Director Andrew Peters’ regional premiere production of Lear, currently playing at Single Carrot Theatre, is an excellent rendition of this challenging play. I’d hate for you to miss out on the opportunity to experience this finely-acted, beautifully-designed, profound piece of theater because you didn’t come equipped with the right tools to make it past its prickly parts.

My husband used to enjoy a dish called “Duck, 3-ways.” I think it’s worth a little bit of a spoiler – especially since most reviews since 2010 have described the show in spoileriffic detail – to help prepare you so you may enjoy the show better. So here goes: Lear is Duck, 3-ways. Only it’s Death, 3-ways; or, perhaps more accurately, Mortality, 3-ways. The play contains three distinct sections, each of them a different preparation of the fact that we, as humans, expire. The juxtaposition of each part with the others can be jarring, but serves to put the central themes in sharp relief. Some parts of the show are funny, some are sad, some are uncomfortable, and some are flat-out weird. But all address the subject of senescence and dying.

Confession: I’ve never seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians or any other Kardashian-related propaganda; I’ve never seen King Lear performed; and – a revelation that, for some reason, usually shocks people to the core – I’ve never seen an episode of Sesame Street. Though these cultural touchstones, however well-deserved or dubiously earned, each relate to Lear in some way, familiarity with them is not an essential prerequisite to appreciating Lee’s play.

Elizabeth Ung as Regan, Chloe Mikala as Cordelia, and Surasree Das as Goneril. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

Things you need to know about Single Carrot’s Lear:

  1. The Lear girls and Gloucester boys are wealthy, narcissistic, and have little capacity for empathy. Promotional materials for the production call them “Kardashianesque.” They can be tiresomely self-obsessed; if you have a low tolerance for the whining and pontificating of entitled young adults, bring a squeezy stress ball thingy. And roll with it. Each of them has a monologue – all splendidly performed – that gives a glimpse of their inner fears and vulnerability. They provide powerful insight to the preening and posturing on the surface.
  2. Reports of a Sesame Street connection are surprisingly accurate. Just roll with it.
  3. THIS IS NOT JUST AN EDGY PRODUCTION OF KING LEAR, so please don’t expect it to be. It’s more like a deconstruction of the Shakespeare masterpiece, a reimagining in the same vein as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Don’t look to familiar characters to behave like you’d think. (Cordelia? #bee-atch).

Roll with it! If you abandon your preconceptions and expectations and just get on the bus, it’s quite an experience – one you’ll be talking about when you leave the theater and thinking about for days.

Things to love about Single Carrot’s Lear:

The designers for Lear went all-out. Set Designer Alison Campbell has the entire theater ensconced in a tent fit for, well, a king. A chandelier hangs at the apex of where draped fabric joins the low ceiling. The shimmering cloth looks gilt and opaque, but it’s a trick of the low light; Helen Garcia’s lighting design brings the set alive, dramatically changing the look and feel of the space with the addition or subtraction of a variety of colors and intensities of light. Also, the lights are outside the tent, their modernity not spoiling the Elizabethan vibe. Sound design by Connor Ceisil and props design by Alisa Glenn complete the beauty of the immersive atmosphere. Entering the space, I heard a young woman’s voice rise above the delicate harpsichord, telling a companion, “I want to get married in a place like this.” Is there higher praise than that?

Chloe Mikala as Cordelia, Elizabeth Ung as Regan, and Surasree Das as Goneril. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

When the actors join us in the tent, their lovely, period-appropriate ensembles make them fit right in. Costume Designer Nicki Seibert has created lavish, intricately detailed costumes for Lear’s five-person cast. Coupled with exquisitely bejeweled wigs from House of Bankerd, the women look amazing. The men sport (intentionally) very-much-less-convincing facial hair, but are, nonetheless, dashing. I particularly liked Edmund’s (Tim German) buckley boots and Edgar’s (Paul Diem) smart black capelet, lined in red silk. I enjoyed Nellie Glover’s choreography, which included some lovely court dancing, and appreciated the realism of Jenny Male’s violence design. (My new band is called Violence Designer).

The cast – Surasree Das as Goneril; Paul Diem as Edgar; Tim German as Edmund; Chloe Mikala as Cordelia; and Elizabeth Ung as Regan – all give outstanding performances. Wracked with guilt over their treatment of their fathers, no one is sleeping or eating well. Snarky and abrasive to begin with, they start bickering and outright fighting with each other as they start to feel the impact of their misdeeds. The magnitude of their fathers’ mortality spills over and forces them to acknowledge their own impermanence.

Das is especially engaging in these scenes; when her Kardashian-kid Goneril, deliciously dislikeable at top of the play, starts to crack at the seams, she seems genuinely horrified by the fate she envisions for herself. Ung’s Regan and Mikala’s Cordelia are also excellent. Ung’s restrained Regan has a quiet sociopathy about her that is disturbing; Mikala’s Cordelia is masterful at manipulation and has very sharp teeth.

Tim German as Edmund and Paul Diem as Edgar. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker.

The men, exceptional actors, each perform an astonishingly long monologue. Diem’s mid-show address is arresting, disarming. Accessible and earnest, Diem makes a strong connection with the audience, bringing focus to issues touched upon in earlier scenes. German turns that focus inward; in a scene that feels as intimate as an old home movie, his touching, impassioned speech literally had some audience members in tears.

Single Carrot’s production of Lear is bold, confident, avant-garde theater. I’m not going to lie – if you’ve tried it and you really can’t get into experimental theater, you may be better served waiting for Shakespeare in Love to open at Center Stage next week. It’s going to be great and may be more your cuppa tea. But if you’ve got room for a little weird in your life and are willing to strap in and let the experience-providing experts at Single Carrot take you for a wild ride, you’re unlikely to regret it.

Young Jean Lee’s Lear is not an easy play; it’s not intended to be. It deals with mortality and loss and many of the characters are despicable. But the production at Single Carrot is worth it. The acting is fantastic, the direction is smart and efficient, and the design team created a magical environment to house it all. The combination of all these elements make Single Carrot’s Lear a poignant production you’ll find returning to your thoughts again and again.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Lear plays through October 29, 2017 at Single Carrot Theatre – 2600 North Howard Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 884-9253, or purchase them online.

NOTES:

Show features a strobe light, explicit language and references to sexual content.

Check out the tie-in events, as described by Single Carrot:

Pride Night at Single Carrot Theatre!
Thursday, October 19, preceding the 8pm performance.
Join us for cocktails, live pre-show music from Christen B, and a fabulous evening of theatre celebrating the 9th Annual LGBT Center Awareness Day! More about the artist: Christen B seamlessly blends electronic and acoustic instruments with transcendent vocals leaving listeners in a state of euphoria! This Baltimore native is changing the way people experience music. She allows the audience to watch as she masterfully layers unique sounds while looping them on the spot and leaving the crowd wanting more!

Adapting the Classics
Friday, October 20, following the 8pm performance.
Join Gavin Witt of Center Stage and Lola Pierson and Stephen Nunns of The ACME Corporation as they discuss the complicated task of adapting famous classical texts for a modern audience. Nunns and Pierson collaborated last year on an original adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Stranger Kindness, which was recently named “Best Play” in City Paper‘s Best of Baltimore Reader’s poll. Witt, along with Center Stage’s Kwame Kwei-Armah, is part of a national project to reimagine and update Shakespeare’s plays for a modern audience. Join them in a conversation on the nuanced process of bringing a well-known, perhaps beloved, text into the present.

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