a Mythic Immediacy

by Michael Feingold, for the Village Voice, February 6, 1990

copyright C 1990 V.V. Publishing Corporation/Reprinted by permission of the Village Voice

What’s most remarkable about the gender-reversed Lear Lee Breuer and Ruth Maleczech have created is that it matters very little, finally, whether or not you like it as a production, or how much you agree with any aspect of its interpretation: If you have any brains, you know you’re going to be thinking about it for the rest of your life. In 25 years, if there’s still theater in America, people who learn that you were in New York in 1990 will want to know what you thought of this Lear, so never mind how inconvenient and uncomfortable Manhattan Community College’s Triplex Theater is, head for Chambers Street and get ready to tell them.

First among the many risks Breuer has taken is that the entire performance is miked, in effect removing the declamation of Shakespeare’s poetry from its lead position among the elements of the work. Though on principle I object to this violently, here I find, to my amazement, that it works. This Lear isn’t about the words–you can’t understand a good many of them. But Lear is, in any case, the play in which Shakespeare made poetry by dismantling his own poetic forms, filling the text instead with broken lines, exclamations, single "no"s and "never"s repeated again and again, or great flooding gusts of jargon and abuse; Breuer has only completed the process. The mikes give both distance (in the opening scenes you can’t tell where any given voice is coming from) and intimacy.

The gender reversals in the language–"The Duchess of Darkness is a gentle-woman," "His voice was ever soft, gentle and low/An excellent thing in a young man"–add an extra dislocation to the soft-toned speaking. So does a slew of parodic accents, to match Shakespeare’s profusion of disguises. The setting is the grotesque Deep South of Erskine Caldwell’s or Flannery O’Connor’s imagination: Against the redneck drawl of the white characters (Lear’s family) and the go-to-meetin’ respectability of the blacks, Lola Pashalinski’s Kent comes back as a madcap Gulf Coast Mexican, Karen Evans-Kandel’s Edgar (in breuer’s version, Edna) as a dreadlocked, vodoun-crazed Creole; Kimberly Scott’s Wilda (Oswald) sports a Caribbean lilt and laugh.

Reducing poetry to utterance, Breuer makes us concentrate on the play’s narrative; his choice of setting, half grotty reality and half lurid-fantasy cliché, reduces even that to a pungent essence. With the absence of poetry goes an equally intentional absence of grandeur: Lear’s hundred retainers have been reduced to "a dozen dogs," several of them noisily visible onstage. Stage left is the front of a clapboard farmhouse; stage right, the back porch and cellar of a tarpaper sack. In between is a hillock, surmounted at various times with a tiny castle that belongs on a miniature golf course, a clump of vulgar prop sunflowers, and a chicken coop for Kent’s imprisonment. But cutting Lear down to a tantrum in a black-eyed-peapatch, oddly, doesn’t diminish either the power of its violence or its nightmarish, despairing vision of a hierarchical order torn to pieces by willfulness and greed at the top, willing servitude and hunger below.

That the hierarchy is female rather than male makes no less sense than the other way around: King Lear is a fairy tale of power abused, not a systematic analysis of it; its affinities are with Cinderella, where the heroine also has two villainous siblings, rather than The Origins of Totalitarianism. Tying the tale to an upside-down South, in which good ol’ boys are lustful, leisured appendages to domineering mothers and hard-bitten wives, gives it a mythic immediacy that’s all the more disquieting for being deranged, fantastic, absurd. When the Fool–a half-imbecilic drag queen, played by Greg Mehrten with an unerring mix of acid and pathos–is lynched, when Maleczech’s crazed Lear is discovered shinnying up a telephone pole, when Gloucester’s daughters slug it out with sticks and broken beer bottles, knocking each other across the hood of Goneril’s roadster, something primordial appears to be taking its lunatic course. One understands for the first time the urgent pleas for order and virtue with which Lear, like all Shakespeare’s plays of upheaval, is shot through. (Breuer should restore the scene of the servants bandaging Gloucester’s blinded eyes–the dialectic between small comforts and huge torments is one of this production’s subjects.)

In part, the sense of virtue doing its minuscule best against great odds comes through so strongly because the acting at its best tends to cluster around points of good and evil. Foreshortened in psychology and scaled down in tragic pomp, the characters come at us in bold, bright strokes, comic-strip primitivist emblems of myth-figures. Harrowing in the vacant serenity of her madness, unnerving in her tiny, tight-focussed rage, Maleczech only falters in her late scenes with Cordelion (played by her own son), where the instinct to spread sweetness comes a shade too easily. During the heath scene her thunder is stolen, literally, by Evans-Kandel, whose Edgar triumphs where 300 years of pasty-faced, well-intentioned white men have struck out their chins to convey integrity and bored the audience to apathetic tears. Isabell Monk’s wearily honest Gloucester, Ellen McElduff’s feyly amoral Elva (Edmund), and Bill Raymond’s sourly introverted Goneril, his bitterness apparently based on stomach acid, are performances that linger in the mind. As does Pauline Oliveros’s music, a set of synthesizer growls and amplified accordion tremors that give each scene a different, lustrous sonic backdrop, against which the actors have to flex their voices. Very few theater scores are as subtly and beautifully shaped.