Review

Young Jean Lee's risky, intriguing riff on 'Lear' at City Garage

At the outset of “Lear,” now receiving an austerely lunatic West Coast premiere at City Garage, a projected PBS-style host drolly relates the narrative of William Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, up to Lear’s banishment and Gloucester’s blinding.

“Our show begins roughly at this point in the story,” the host (Trace Taylor) continues. “Nothing else that happens in Shakespeare’s text is necessarily relevant to what you are about to see.” This, as it turns out, is a considerable understatement.

Playwright Young Jean Lee’s 2009 dissection of the motives and psychosexual dilemmas of the progeny who drive the Bard’s towering masterwork isn’t so much a deconstruction; neither Lear nor Gloucester appear, for starters. Instead it's a wildly prismatic riff on existential identity, the patriarchy, internecine attraction/repulsion and more. Not for nothing did New Yorker critic Hinton Als call it "a hot mess.”

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As such, it’s a natural fit for ever-adventurous City Garage. This second installment in the company’s tripartite “The Winter of Our Discontent: Shakespeare in the Digital Age” project doesn’t entirely solve the problems of avant-garde iconoclast Lee’s collage-like text, but it’s nonetheless intriguing.

Director Frédérique Michel treats the intermissionless proceedings as a hybrid of Renaissance masque, absurdist romp and college counseling session, and her fine-tuned cast follows suit.

Kristina Drager makes an angular, dryly understated Goneril, whose deliberately contemporary interaction with Kat Johnston’s curt, oddly sympathetic Regan and Nili Rain Segal’s insanely grinning, perversely funny Cordelia typifies the whole.

They neatly respond to the fey/savage interplay of Andrew Loviska’s vivid Edgar, who recalls the young James Woods, and Anthony M. Sanazzaro’s hilariously petulant Edmund, his late-inning reappearance as a beloved “Sesame Street” character perhaps Lee’s riskiest twist.

Posing and pouncing around producer Charles A. Duncombe’s elemental sets and lighting in Josephine Poinsot’s winking costumes, the group sustains itself through to the post-Pirandello climax, which breaks both tone and third wall.  

At that, “Lear” still flirts with incoherence, not really earning its heartfelt final paternal salute, and it certainly won’t be for all tastes. Devotees of its author and this cutting-edge company should flock.

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“Lear”

Where: City Garage, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 13.

Info: (310) 453-09939 or www.citygarage.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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