Playwright: Young Jean Lee. At: Red Tape Theatre, 621 W. Belmont Ave. (St. Peter's Church). Tickets: www.redtapetheatre.org; $25. Runs through: June 22
Weird play. Psycho-drama, really, akin to a much gentler version of Sarah Kane, the suicidal 1990s British playwright whose Blasted, Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis have been produced locally. Similar to Kane's work, Lear features self-absorbed and self-flagellating characters, although thankfully without Kane's obsession with rape, mutilation and violence. The other significant difference is that Kane wrote about herself, while Young Jean Lee riffs on King Lear.
In a comfortable modern living room, the daughters of King Lear, Regan and Goneril, sit out a storm, joined by the legitimate (Edgar) and bastard (Edmund) sons of Lear's counselor, Gloucester. Goneril and Edmund are casually clothed while Edgar wears a tie and jacket and Regan sports a high-glam, beaded black cocktail dress. Shortly, Lear's third daughter, Cordelia, arrives from Paris with a Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. Lear and the blinded Gloucester are out in the stormdead or alive?both represented by a portrait over the fireplace of a man with defaced eyes. So, what to do if you are, possibly, guilty of patricide?
For 45 minutes the kids hurl insults and blame at each other, and generally reveal their incapacities to love or be loved. Lee's favorite tool is the seemingly witty non sequitur. Edgar to Edmund: "I would kill you in an instant if it were a choice between your life and my look." Goneril: "When everything falls away there is nothing ... except what is there." Cordelia, about exile in Paris: "I drank and I forced myself upon animals." This portion of the play has neither story arc nor character development.
Then Edgar steps forward and offers the audience an opportunity to leave, following which Big Bird (Edmund) appears and the others regress to childhood as the kids of recently deceased Mr. Hooper, the local drug store owner. Using stuffed animals, the girls act out the death of Cordelia from Shakespeare's play, and the kids explain death to Big Bird. Finally, stripping to underwear, Edmund offers a moving monologue about the relationship between father and child. The monologue is so accessible, it almost seems a sentimental reach-out from Lee to her audience in contrast to the selfish introspections which have preceded it.
The Korean-born Lee is a New York-based experimental playwright who does not make ethnic or cultural heritage the subject of her plays. Red Tape Theatre previously staged a double-bill of two Lee plays which I found more immediate and engaging than Lear. As they have before, Red Tape offers an environmental setting: the audience sits with the characters within the complete, four-walled living room. The capable performers are earnest and often amusing under director James D. Palmer, but the rambling and petulant introspections of the first section didn't interest me, and I had no emotional connection until the end.