- Associated Press - Monday, October 29, 2012

“King Lear” may be Shakespeare’s greatest work, but, let’s face it, it’s also grindingly grim.

The reasons are simple: There’s great suffering, a man descends into madness, two families are torn apart, and there’s a very high body count, not to mention some eye-gouging. It’s definitely not for children.

Or is it?

The Royal Shakespeare Company is on an international tour with a stripped-down version of the play that’s targeted to children as young as 8, most of whom have never seen any Shakespeare. Instead of a four-hour “Lear,” this one clocks in at just 75 minutes.

“I suppose the purists would say, ‘It is a terrible thing that you have done,’ ” said Jacqui O’Hanlon, director of education for the company. “But we’re thinking about how we can introduce young audiences to the pleasure and enjoyment and excitement and thrill of Shakespeare’s work. A four-hour production is not going to do it if you’re 8 and 9 and 10 and 11.”

The company’s Young People’s Shakespeare production has arrived in New York City for an 11-performance stand at the Park Avenue Armory following a tour of the United Kingdom. It next goes to Ohio State University.

The play, edited and directed by Tim Crouch, is set in the modern era between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. The nine-person cast uses props including a reindeer costume, a snow globe and Christmas lights. Lear, played by Paul Copley, begins the play as a jaunty Santa, handing out presents.

At the armory, some 90 sixth- and seventh-graders from the New School for Leadership and the Arts in the Bronx seemed delighted by the show one recent afternoon.

“Gross!” roared the crowd when the character Edgar pulled out grimy clothes and put them on to disguise himself as a mad beggar. He looked like something all these urban children were familiar with: a homeless man.

The music leans on classic 1950s Christmas tunes, including “Let It Snow” — with the lyric “Oh, the weather outside is frightful” — during Lear’s storm of madness. The scenic design obviously is limited — the throne is a wheelchair — but it leaves enough room for imagination.

There were moments when the fourth wall vanished, as when the children were asked to hold props or a character did a magic trick, making a handkerchief disappear.

“Slap me in the face,” Ben Deery, who plays Edmund, asked a startled grade-schooler at one point. “Slap me in the face!” Mr. Deery repeated. The child finally did as he was told, lightly brushing Mr. Deery’s cheek while smiling widely. Mr. Deery insisted it be harder, and the delighted child complied.

Catherine Miller, a teacher at the Bronx public school, admitted she was a little leery at first about “Lear” but said she was delighted to find it so accessible. Her children told her many of the plot lines were similar to what they watched on TV or at the movies.

“It gives them a nice taste for Shakespeare,” she said. “Afterward, I had a student ask me for an unabridged version of ‘King Lear,’ and I gave it to her. She was just involved by the story.”

This is the fourth Shakespeare work reconfigured by the Royal Shakespeare Company, following “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Hamlet.” Thousands of schoolchildren have been captivated by the company’s work, proving the point: Young people like challenge and complexity.

“All great literature has that ability to speak to audiences. Truly great literature can speak to many different audiences on many different levels. And I think that’s what this production accomplished,” Ms. Miller said.

Rebecca Robertson, president of the armory, said the 1,000 schoolchildren who will see the show in New York connect with the sibling rivalry and the tough times at Christmastime. After each show, the cast answers questions, furthering the enrichment.

“There is nothing like listening to students from East New York and these incredible actors from England both talking about the same subject. It doesn’t get better than that,” Ms. Robertson said. Her education team helps prepare the children before the show and then follows up by asking them to use another art form to express the themes they most connected to.

More than an hour into a dense “Lear,” the audience at the armory still was listening carefully. “Oooooo,” the children cried when Edmund kissed Regan shortly after puckering up with her sister, Goneril. “Which of them shall I take?” he asked the crowd, who vocally offered their thoughts. “Neither,” he finally decided.

Ms. O’Hanlon said that kissing scene often gets the most roars of disapproval from younger audiences, regardless of where they are in the world.

“It just makes me laugh so much that you can put a lot of horror on the stage, but kissing is the one thing that’s guaranteed to get the most extraordinary reaction,” she said.

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