Susanna Hamnett in Nearly Lear
(© Doug Forester)
Susanna Hamnett in Nearly Lear
(© Doug Forester)
You never forget your first brush with Shakespeare, so in undertaking to introduce young audiences to the tragedy of King Lear, solo performer Susan Hamnett is taking on a huge responsibility by creating Nearly Lear, now at the New Victory Theater.

She bears the burden lightly, reducing the story line to its barest bones (and then some) and approaching the tale as an opportunity for some good-natured neo-vaudeville clowning. Indeed, she and director and co-adaptor Edith Tankus have so drastically reduced the Bard's saga -- jettisoning certain key characters entirely -- that the 70-minute-long result too often unspools like an an especially fraught episode of Desperate Housewives.

Hamnett's framing device has her playing "Norris" (nee Noreen), Lear's cross-dressed former court jester. Undaunted by the fact that a certain playwright has already committed the sad story to paper, she undertakes to tell it her way -- popping in and out of her narrator persona to play the various characters.

There's no question that Hamnett, who speed-morphs from role to role while spinning a three-card monte setup of wheeled white curtains, is an energetic and engaging performer. Her depiction of the two self-serving elder sisters, Goneril and Regan, is the most enjoyable aspect of the show (at least from an adult perspective). She gives the former the imperial airs of a sexually rapacious Cruella de Vil, and the latter the breathy, sex-kittenish oomph of Betty Boop.

Having dutifully professed their love for their father -- the retiring king solicits their fealty in a ceremony resembling a game show -- both Goneril and Regan soon develop a bad case of callousness and greed. They also develop the hots for the vain, conniving "Osmond" (a conflation of the steward Oswald and Gloucester's bastard, Edmund, a much more fascinating villain, here sorely missed).

It's all fun and games -- including a participatory, spritzer-enhanced recreation of "the worst storm in the whole of English literature!" -- until it comes time for Gloucester to forfeit his sight. This tonal shift is handled in a surprisingly graphic manner (although from the audience's reaction, one wonders about the diet of violence they've already ingested at so tender an age).

As for how Lear will carry in the corpse of youngest daughter Cordelia -- an iconic scene designed to crack the hardest of hearts -- that enactment is beyond even the protean Hamnett's powers. Instead, the script, as if admitting defeat, cuts to a generic film clip of a father frolicking in the forest with his clearly beloved young daughter. (The pair are played by Hamnett's own family members.)

In the end, one isn't sure if Hamnett's efforts are at all necessary. King Lear will touch the next generation (or not) when the time is right for them to encounter it on its own terms -- and theirs.

For tickets to Nearly Lear, click here.