The Long and Short of “Lear: The Old Man I Used to Know"

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Photo Credit:  Evan Felts

“Lear: The Old Man I Used to Know” is playing at the A.R.T./New York Theatres on the Smith Street Stage, located at 502 West 53rd Street in Manhattan for a limited engagement through September 22.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare's “King Lear” you are familiar with his characters of Albany (Kieron Anthony), King Lear and his three daughters Regan, Lear's eldest daughter who was the wife of Cornwall (Vanessa Butler), her sister Gonerill, (Albany's wife) portrayed by Hannah Sloat and King Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia (Aileen Wu.) In the play Lear is played by Louis Butelli and his eldest daughter Regan is played by Ashley Scott. The cast rounds out with Kate Eastman, Noelle Franco, Jonathan Hopkins, Christa Kimlicko Jones, Sarah Dacey Charles as Gloucester and Pete McElligott.

“Lear: The Old Man I Used to Know” takes some liberties with the Shakespearean version and begins in a dusty attic covered with drop cloth and littered with books. A young girl (Wu) ventures through the attic and begins to read one of the books only to find the characters come to life and she herself dragged into the story as Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia.

Perhaps Director Beth Ann Hopkins might consider some editing of the play since it is nearly 3 hours in length which prompted 2 intermissions. Some scenes need to be fine-tuned if not altogether eliminated. Also, Old English is spoken throughout the play and was not always easily understood. I found there were a few times within the play characters just suddenly appeared and thus hard to identify. Those unfamiliar with Shakespeare's King of Britain, King Lear, must pay close attention otherwise they could easily get lost following the story-line.

In a nutshell, King Lear is the story of an elderly King who seems to have been experiencing the early stages of senility or so it seemed to me. Understanding he was aging, Lear decided to divide his kingdom between his three daughters under the proviso they demonstrate their love for him. Each daughter save Cordelia professed her love. The two daughters fawning over the King met with his approval but because Cordelia did not fawn the King grew angry and banished his young daughter. Lear's loyal advisor Kent tells Lear he should not have banished Cordelia. This prompted the angry King to in turn banish Kent who always had the King's best interest at heart. What ensues is a lot of greed, plotting to possess properties, betrayal, maiming, manipulations, brother against brother, and tricking other inheritors out of inheriting which in some instances, resulted in death.

I found Darrin Hallinan's use of sound via the thunder and rain a nice touch and the set design and use of props especially the big chest actors were appearing in and out of, intriguing. The ensemble of actors pulled together to make a fine performance so I cannot say it was a bad rendition of King Lear. However, I do think it could be much better than it is presently. Perhaps with a few nips and tucks and chopping away of unnecessary scenes so the duration of the play is shorter and the story-line made less confusing, “Lear: The Old Man I Used To Know” will prove more palatable. 

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