Best arrive on time for Nearly Lear, a one-woman clownish Shakespeare adaptation blowing through the Kennedy Center for just this weekend. That’s not just because KC’s Family Theater may be the most Mussolini-esque of all houses in the DC area (they drop the lights the precise second the clock turns from 6:59 to 7:00).
But you might also get a perhaps unwelcome welcome from the stage as a red jacket meanders you to your seat. Susanna Hamnett, one woman of this one woman show, will give you a wave and a greeting in a friendly brogue, saying that she was worried you aren’t going to make it. And, of course, you’ll be snickered at by the 9-12 year olds surrounding you while your face flushes with embarrassment. Just like middle school all over again.
It’s a trope as old as the first time a theater patron said sotto voce “Oh my gods the actors are coming into the audience.” From extra long death scenes to a well-used spray bottle for the storm to singling out an audience member who seems game, Nearly Lear goes further as a practical handbook on every variation of retreaded audience interaction conceived.
But is it cliché or charming? Perhaps fortunately, the mainly preteen audience had quite a blast with the interactivity. After all, every comic bit is new if you’ve never seen it before. And, while Hamnett lacks the virtuosity and physical specificity that converts clownish to Clown, her commitment to clear storytelling and her heartfelt personal angle into the Lear story all make Nearly Lear a charming introduction to the story for youngsters.
closes Sunday, May 14, 2017
Details and tickets
She and director Edith Tankus strip the story to the bones of plot, if not time, to the single storyline of King Lear himself, leaving out the counterplot of the bastard Edmund entirely. This move leaves the unservile servant Osmond as the main antagonist of the tale of a king dividing his kingdom amongst two scheming daughters and their servant lover while rejecting the one daughter who truly loves him.
Interwoven instead is her narrator’s story from the perspective of the Fool, Noreen, a girl whose father encourages her to dress as a boy and become Lear’s jester. With this smart stroke in contrasting Noreen and her father with Lear and Cordelia, Nearly Lear echoes the most famous Shakespearean pastiche of father-daughter relationship: Lynn Redgrave’s Shakespeare for My Father. While this play doesn’t plumb the same depths as Redgrave’s masterpiece, it makes some favorable comparisons, especially in its ending where adults are sure to find some eye-glistening bittersweetness just for them.
Production-wise, Hamnett makes do with three simple frames on wheels, each covered in a cloth, that work with her imitations of the characters and some physical tricks to clearly communicate scene and plot. Her main challenge is differentiating between the myriad of characters she plays.
She does well with this task when dialect helps her, since her dialects are on point in a way usually unseen on DC stages. But she struggles mightily when playing multiple courtly characters in the same scene. Relying too much on indicative tics instead of truly altering her physicality, both adults and children may have a difficult time discerning who is who in more complicated scenes.
The other main challenge of this show is its length. There’s an important moment for Theater for Young Audiences productions that I like to call “the Straining Point.” That’s when the attention of the young patrons, as a group, starts to buck. One can feel them straining in their seats, whispering to each other, and emitting low struggling whines that inspire parents to gently shush. The Straining Point happens in adult productions, too, when you see small flashes of cell phones in the audience as they check the time, but the difference is that, in an adult production, the audience can be grabbed back into the play by something exciting onstage. For Theater for Young Audiences, the Straining Point is a point of no return. Once it starts, they’ll fidget until the final bows.
For most TYA productions, the Straining Point comes around an hour into the production, and Nearly Lear is no exception. The problem for this play is that there is around 20 minutes of story left after the Straining Point hits, and it shows. As finely minced as Nearly Lear is from Shakespeare’s voluminous original, Hamnett and Tankus would do well to cut out some of the filler (probably in the clichéd/charming interactivity) to have this play end when the young audience’s attention ends.
Despite some of these kind of bumps, Nearly Lear still gives a strong showing and makes a worthwhile visit for parents determined to introduce their kids to the English language’s most famous author. Its content should give middle schoolers and up no trouble and much interest, though your child might need to be particularly precocious to make it through the whole thing without squirming. You have to catch it soon though, Nearly Lear leaves the Kennedy Center on Sunday. Though with some adjustment, it could become a staple of Shakespeare for kids that you’ll see at a TYA venue near you.
Nearly Lear adapted from William Shakespeare’s King Lear by Susanna Hamnett and Edith Tankus. Directed by Edith Tankus. Featuring Susanna Hamnett . Lighting Design: Michelle Ramsay . Set Design: Lindsay Anne Black . Sound Design: Gavin Fearon . Film: David Parker . Stage Manager: Karen Jenson. Produced by The Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Alan Katz.