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Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know

Eccentric version of the Shakespeare tragedy with emendation from Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Lord Tennyson and Dylan Thomas and music by Satie and Chopin.

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Louis Butelli as Lear, Aileen Wu as Cordelia, Vanessa Butler as Cornwall, Ashley Scott as Regan, and Hannah Sloat as Goneril in a scene from Smith Street Stage’s production of “Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know” (Photo credit: Evan Felts)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Directors’ projects are only valuable if they reveal something new about the play being revived. More often than not they can go off the rails rather than discover a new level to a classic play. A case in point is Sam Gold’s radical reinventions of The Glass Menagerie, Othello, Hamlet and King Lear with their wildly varying success. Beth Ann Hopkins’s Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, is a warning to audiences that this will not be your parents or grandparents’ Lear. However, the changes seem more eccentric than enlightening.

In Hopkins’ interpretation, “a young girl has run away to her Grandmother’s attic, a space for forgotten objects covered with drop cloths and dusty time. When searching through a stack of old books, she opens one up to reveal that the words literally come alive off the pages as characters and creatures emerge around her and begin to tell her the story of King Lear.” While the play begins with the young girl reading a book found in the attic, there is no sense that the play is being retold through the eyes of a child other than that the girl pinch hits for Cordelia and all of the minor characters. She has also added the character of the girl’s mother who has one line as she comes looking for her daughter in the attic.

Hopkins had added selections from Lewis Carroll (references to the Jabberwock and “The White Knight’s Song: The Aged Age Man,” the poem which gives her the new title), Emily Dickinson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”), Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (“To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”), and unidentified poems from Dylan Thomas. Aside from the fact that these are several centuries newer, all of these have a different rhythm than Shakespeare’s Lear. The music credits include Satie’s “Gymnopedie” No. 1, Chopin’s “Nocturne in E minor,” excepts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, and “Ombra mai fu” from Handel’s opera Serse. The most outstanding problem is that we have other associations with this material so that they stick out like a sore thumb.

Aileen Wu, Jonathan Hopkins, Louis Butelli, Noelle Franco and Pete McElligott in a scene from Smith Street Stage’s production of “Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know” (Photo credit: Evan Felts)

Hopkins has attempted a number of tableaux not all of which work the way she intended. Actors entering a scene walk in slow motion passed a see-threw scrim behind  the set which seems totally meaningless. In the first act, the face of The Duke of Albany (played by Kieron Anthony) is hidden by a painting he carries. In the second act he simply carries a picture frame which he ultimately he destroys in the third act and becomes a take-charge person. At one point the Girl climbs up on boxes in the back and stares out a window which seems pointless. A huge map of Briton is first revealed as a dress for one of the characters which is rather awkward. However, the cave created for Edgar as Poor Tom on the heath by hoisting a large white cloth up on three sides and lighting it as though by a fire is very successful.

An additional problem is that the acting is very uneven, with some characters more convincing than others. There is no Lear without an aging monarch of royal entitlement. Louis Butelli as the ancient king of Briton does very little in this first half of the play, but improves greatly from the Heath scene on and become quite poignant. As Goneril and Regan, Hannah Sloat and Ashley Scott, respectively, exude arrogance but do not go as far with it as they might. As Earl of Kent who disguises himself as “Caius” when exiled by Lear, Pete McElligott is no different as either man, making us wonder why he had not been recognized by those who knew him in his former role. Jonathan Hopkins does well with Edgar, both as himself, heir to the Duke of Gloucester, and in guise as Tom o’Bedlam. However, his Southern accent for Poor Tom is quite startling in this British context. Nicolle Franco as the Fool is quite effective although she does not go as far as Ruth Wilson did in the Sam Gold production earlier this year.

The switching of gender which is becoming more and more common (as in the Glenda Jackson/Sam Gold version of King Lear on Broadway this past spring) is utterly pointless here. The Duke of Cornwall, Regan’s husband, would have been a first class warrior in Ancient Briton which Vanessa Butler does not suggest. Ironically, the casting of the Duke of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, the evil Edmond, with a woman was reversed when actress Kate Eastman joined the Broadway production of Tracy Letts’ Linda Vista. Her replacement Alex Purcell makes Edmund who romances both Goneril and Regan a virile, seduction presence. Could an actress have been as believable? When the Duke of Gloucester played by Sarah Dacey Charles is referred to by her son Edmund as “Father” when clearly she looks like his “Mother” seems like a mistake. Why not follow through and rename her the Duchess and refer to her as his mother?

Sarah Dacey Charles and Louis Butelli in a scene from Smith Street Stage’s production of “Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know” (Photo credit: Evan Felts)

Steven Brenman’s attic setting allows for easy transitions between scenes, although a rack of clothing which is never used but sits on stage throughout the evening is distracting. Like the eccentric text, Sherry Martinez’ costumes seem to range from the Elizabethan Era to the 20th century for no particular reason. The lighting by Charlotte McPherson is generally unobtrusive but is particularly good for the cave scene. Ashley Setzler is credited with the props design and painting, while Tony and Sherry Leone have created the magic props, and Gary Dolan is credited with special props.

Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know is an ambition attempt to recast Shakespeare’s play in a new light. However, director Beth Ann Hopkins never makes clear what that approach is supposed to be. The concept of seeing the play through a child’s eyes does not develop in any way and the additions of more recent authors only draws attention to itself as a poor device. Some of the acting is accomplished; other performers have not yet found their characters.  This is a production only for Shakespeare completists, but competing with the recent all-star Glenda Jackson/Sam Gold production may be a hard sell.

Lear: That Old Man I Used to Know (through September 22, 2019)

Smith Street Stage

The Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, ART/New York Theatres, 502 W. 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.SmithStreetStage.org

Running time: three hours and 15 minutes with two intermissions

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (679 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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