It is going to be pride of place for Young Jean Lee’s Lear during its three-week, world premier run in January. Lear was commissioned by Soho Rep, and they’ve selected her new piece as their new season’s opening knell. The writer-director had her first professional production on their stage, when The Appeal was mounted in 2004. Sarah Benson, now artistic director at Soho Rep, recalled in an interview that she’d never seen anything like The Appeal. “It was incredibly intimate, really funny, super theatrical,” said Benson, whose direction of Sarah Kane’s Blasted received an Obie this year. “She’d created a theater within the theater, without it being up its own ass.”
What has followed has been a concentrated tear for Young Jean Lee’s Theater Company. PS122 staged Pullman, WA, and Church (2005 and 2007, respectively, with Church moving to the Public Theater). HERE presented Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven in 2006. Lee scored an Obie for emerging playwright the following year, and her company tours internationally. Then, after juxtaposing churning Korean femininity with an ineffectual Anglo couple in Dragons Flying, and after Church dwelt on white born-again Christians, The Shipment hit the Kitchen in early 2009. Brimming with disparate theatrical tactics, surging with the skills of five potent actors, The Shipment stared at our racial chasms, and hitched the bar high as a resounding commercial and critical hit. (Commissions have come from Lincoln Center Theater, Playwrights Horizons, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.)
By flaunting the mad king’s name in her new title, Lee’s blocked out a freighted task. Lear veers from unbridled power to helplessness; his tragedy inflects immensities. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary, critic Jan Kott wrote that “Beckett’s theater is found in King Lear”—an entire modernist aesthetic encapsulated just by the storm-ravaged heath scene. The Flemish writer-director Jan Lauwers, whose freewheeling Needcompany’s King Lear was pilloried at BAM in 2001, told me of Shakespeare that “when you take it on, you fail.”
Lee’s wily in her approach, though. Her jumping-off point seems less Endgame than Tom Stoppard, who showed everything we’d never wondered about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s unwitting messengers, unable to cope with the hands—or daggers—of fate. Her modus operandi promise to keep her screwing with the comfort zone, though she has folks in key roles with whom she’s worked before. Amelia Workman, Paul Lazar, and Pete Simpson are in the cast (complemented by April Matthis and Okwui Okpokwasili). Dean Moss is back aboard, having choreographed cavorting Koreans 1, 2, and 3 in Dragons Flying, as is sound designer Matt Tierney.
“It’s definitely a springboard, not an adaptation,” Lee said on the phone over Thanksgiving weekend about her piece. “The kids are in the palace, they’ve just kicked the fathers out into the storm. They pretend they’re fine, then realize they’re not. I started out with this idea of King Lear, of aging parents and how they relate to their children. And ended up with a story without Lear, Gloucester or any old people.”
“It’s a play that completely unravels,” Lee said. “I feel there’s a moment in every person’s life when they realize their parents will die. When this hits, it’s like the ground opens up and things aren’t solid any more.” Whatever recognitions the Bard allowed noble Cordelia, or even the conniving Goneril, Regan, and their other halves, Lee’s Lear has everything to do with her own terminally ill father. As with much in her work—the taped dialogue that opens Dragons Flying elicits giggles that are then squelched by a video of the author being repeatedly slapped—the personal can lurk terribly close at hand, but a hair-trigger removed from the boisterous laughs.
Though he missed an autumn reading of Lee’s latest piece, Mac Wellman heard from colleagues who were there, “It sounds like she’s avoiding the obvious traps of doing Lear,” said the playwright (Crowbar; Terminal Hip) and co-founder of the Flea Theater in a phone interview. When Lee dropped the English doctoral program at UC Berkeley in 2002—“I think Lear comes from the Ph.D thesis she never finished,” Wellman said—she came here, then joined his MFA program in playwriting at Brooklyn College. “From the first thing she showed me, which was the first play she’d written,” Wellman recalled, “I thought she had something to prove.”
“She was in my class with [playwright] Thomas Bradshaw and they quickly bonded,” Wellman said. Bradshaw (Southern Promises; Purity) played Fu Manchu in Lee’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, which she directed at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater in 2003. “There’s about two dozen important young playwrights changing American playwriting,” Wellman said. He name checked Susie Lori Parks, Anne Washburn, Sarah Ruhl, “and Thomas, of course. Young Jean is at the center of that. She’s always edgy, playing around with ideas that are not fashionable. She’s always thinking about theater as it is and as it may be. She makes waves—there are people who don’t like what she does.”
Wellman had heard from Daniel Aukin, then the artistic director at Soho Rep, after Aukin saw The Appeal script. “He said how terrific he thought it was. Then Young Jean said she wanted to direct it. She taught herself directing as an expression of her focus. She doesn’t waste time, she’s not self-indulgent—that allows her to extend her focus.” He offered a short list of innovative writer-directors: Richard Foreman, Lee Breuer, Robert Wilson, Elizabeth LeCompte. “You can add Richard Maxwell to that,” Wellman said. “Young Jean is headed for that category.”
Lee, when asked about her commitment to directing her work, spoke of the internship she did on arriving in New York, with the collective Radiohole. “Their model is the Wooster Group, and they’re doing everything: writing, directing, designing. With that company, creating and producing go hand in hand.” Radiohole received the Spalding Gray Award this year, and Lee’s now a member. “The Appeal was a departure point, the last time I came to rehearsal with the finished script in hand. One night I got stuck and just had the actors get drunk. We ran through it, drinking on stage. Everything became completely different.”
The Appeal is in a volume of Lee’s scripts, titled Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven and Other Plays (Theatre Communications Group). It works a nominally classic setting, featuring Dorothy Wordsworth, her brother William (who was played by Pete Simpson), and fellow poet Samuel Coleridge, who also whirligigs in as a taciturn William Blake. But their English Lake District is rife with attitudes of the “No Worries, It’s All Good” generation. One transition scene comes off as a circle jerk, and Dorothy “spanks herself with her diary.” Later she extols “this weird animalistic mindless energy,” pondering an empty time where “there is no filter, there is no self-consciousness.” Shot through with a score by electro-duo Matmos, The Appeal spends its second act in an underfurnished Alpine castle where Dorothy and Lord Byron jig, drink, and dote—at least when that Romantic’s not nerved out about how things’d be “if I had microscopes for eyes.”
After the lubricated revisions on that play, Lee began developing her material in rehearsal. “Now I cast the actors before I’ve written a word,” she said. “I ask people what they do, sing or dance or juggle. This is the toolbox I have to work with. I get the best performers I can, within my budget constraints, and as a writer and director I want to make the performers look as good as I can. I look for huge charisma and versatility. They have to be not only charismatic,” she concluded, “they also have to be smart, so I can trust what they offer me.”
She offered an example of this formative exchange, from developing The Shipment. Having opened with Mikeah Ernest Jennings tracking Prentice Onayemi in a limber dance spanning the bare stage, the piece then shape-shifts into a stand-up routine, delivered with caustic brio by Douglas Scott Streater. Race is the case, and Streater’s dead set on mocking things back into line. He recalls his black and white girlfriends and a No. 2 pencil when he was seven years old, rejects various other taboos by advocating barnyard sex and consensual incest, and makes the telling point that “no one ever called someone a cracker before lynching them.” Streater entreats—at the top of his considerable lung power—for white’s, when called out on racist behavior, rather than claim it’s the accuser who has the problem (defined in hip hop as “beastin”), to “just fucking say I’m sorry and try not to do it again!”
“I wrote that stand-up and brought it in,” Lee said, “and I was ranting about all of these things in it and the actors told me these aren’t the things they’re mad about and I asked ‘well what are the things you’re mad about?’ and they told me. I went home and rewrote the whole thing. That’s my process with the actors.”
The Shipment then pummels through a rapper’s progress: ‘hood, prison, disillusioned stardom of furs, gold chains, and being “tired of eating a different pussy every night.” The actors affect graphic-novel deliveries, gesturing as broadly as Kara Walker silhouettes. Then, with the stage reset as the sitting area of a posh apartment, the play’s second half suspends on a naturalistic intensity as honed as the first half is slapdash. A new character, Thomas (Streater), has invited friends and colleagues over for drinks, and embarks on increasingly provocative manipulations.
On the phone, when asked if a similarly bracing level of dramatic power would elucidate conflicts in her Lear, Lee declined to reveal how the new piece breaks down. “It’s completely different in every respect—design, approach, structure, tone—from anything else I’ve done.” She then added that “it’s really been kicking my ass.” Sarah Benson from Soho Rep didn’t get any more specific. “Young Jean’s is a holistic, singular vision for the theater experience. She is creating a play that can only be a play. And she has a startling handle on its form.” To be unleashed very soon.
Lear runs Jan. 7–31, 2010 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St., Manhattan. For tickets and more info, visit www.sohorep.org