Partway through "Lear," the quirky, multilayered play by Young Jean Lee receiving a vibrant regional premiere at Single Carrot Theatre, someone says: "What are you talking about?"
Audience members might be tempted to ask that same question multiple times. But not feeling quite sure of things turns out to be a crucial part of the experience.
By the time you think you've got at least a bit of a handle on the characters, a glimmer of an idea where they're coming from or where they're headed, they surprise. The ground shifts often and wildly enough in "Lear" to register on a seismograph.
Lee doesn't so much deliver a deconstruction of Shakespeare's "King Lear" — the complex, profound title character never appears in the play — as generate a fun-house-mirror riff on language, youth, aging, self-absorption, superficiality, filial responsibility, and more.
The focus is on the hapless Lear's three daughters (Regan, Goneril, Cordelia) and the two sons (Edgar, Edmund) of his equally unfortunate friend Gloucester, whose eyes were gouged out. While Lear and Gloucester roam the wilds in a storm, their offspring — the Elizabethan equivalent of millennials — dance, kvetch and fight boredom in the throne room.
Edmund (Tim German) ponders why everyone looks fat to him. Edgar (Paul Diem) espouses the attractions of Buddhism, which Regan (Elizabeth Ung) finds appealing because "when a thought comes into your head you just label it 'thinking' and it helps."
Goneril (Surasree Das) feels a little bad about her father's suffering. "But what am I to do? My needs are essential," she says. A few seconds later, she adds: "I am a lavish tipper."
In due time, Cordelia (Chloe Mikala), the daughter banished by her father after failing to profess her love for him sufficiently, drops into this weird little world. She adds her own offbeat tangents about "fine candy-spun things sweetening my dreams" and "mucous overflowing an empty stomach."
About two-thirds of the way into the 80-minute work, there's an abrupt change. I hesitate to reveal too much, save to say it has something to do with Big Bird and "Sesame Street." (I told you it's quirky.) In this portion, the play gradually, surprisingly takes a poetic flight.
Even if you don't follow — or buy — all of this, the Single Carrot staging provides considerable satisfaction.
Allison Campbell's scenic design is a gem, enveloping the audience in a billowy tent. Nicki Seibert costumes the actors in plenty of finery. Additional atmosphere comes from the expert lighting (Helen Garcia-Alton) and a rich sound design (Connor Ciesil) that includes all the "ominous rumbling" Lee specifies.
It's pretty easy to go with the absurdist flow given the natural, nuanced, well-timed performances director Andrew Peters draws from his cast, even in the craziest or most vulgar moments.
With her musical voice and wealth of facial expressions, Das proves particularly winning as Goneril. German's eyes alone speak volumes in his portrayal of Edmund. The supple actor is extra-effective in the long, closing monologue, achieving remarkable intimacy and tenderness.
Mikala and Ung contribute sturdily. Diem leaves a notable mark during the transition between the play's two worlds, expertly carrying off Lee's rather daring assault on the fourth wall.
Although "Lear" promises much more than it delivers, Single Carrot finds a certain power inside it, even helps make a certain kind of sense out of it. Above all, the production effectively underscores how, for all of the wryness and digressions, all the curious and crazy turns, familiar concerns haunt everyone in the play — time's relentless passing, mortality's relentless toll.
If you go
"Lear" runs through Oct. 29 at Single Carrot Theatre, 2600 N. Howard St. Tickets are $25 to $29, Call 443-844-9253, or go to singlecarrot.com.