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BWW Review: Delightful NEARLY LEAR Brings Kid-Friendly Shakespeare to the Kennedy Center

It's thrilling to discover a work of Shakespeare for the first time, especially as a kid. For me, those introductions came from old episodes of "Wishbone" on PBS, but luckily for today's young audiences in the Washington area, there's a live option: NEARLY LEAR, a tweaked, SparkNotes-length version of the dark original work, performed in a one-woman show by Susanna Hamnett at the Kennedy Center's Family Theater.

Hamnett plays each character and preserves the bare bones of the classic KING LEAR, with a few adjustments. She tells the story from the perspective of Lear's Fool, in this case a woman named Noreen disguised as a man, Norris. Hamnett inhabits each of the key roles, including King Lear and his daughters Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. She cuts some characters in this stripped-down version, but adds in Osmond, a Jack Sparrow-swaggering cad who romantically pursues both Goneril and Regan in a scheme to attain power.

Lear asks his daughters to declare who loves him most, in order to determine which one should inherit the largest share of the kingdom; this backfires as the treasured Cordelia refuses to play along with the flattery and is banished by her father. "Evil stepsisters" Goneril and Regan throw their dad and his Fool into "the worst storm in English literature", and of course tragedy ensues.

With minimal props and a few cloth panels as scenery, and relying mostly on body language and changes of vocal tone and dialect, Hamnett enacts essential scenes and retains excerpts of the original text. She plays up the tragedy but imbues it with interactive comedy, doling out tissues to the audience, employing a spray bottle to share the effects of the storm, and relishing in the use of fake eyeballs in a memorable scene that makes the play's violence G-rated. Young audience members responded to these engaging tricks and games, which served to rein in anyone whose attention span grew short. NEARLY LEAR is true to the participatory spirit of Shakespeare's plays, which have appealed to the masses and encouraged audience reactions for centuries.

Despite Hamnett's great skill in uniquely portraying each character, they run together at times, making some plot points challenging to comprehend, particularly for children. However, her energy and goofiness convey a passion for the source material and relay the most important messages. The play's conclusion, which made use of a home video-like projection, tugged at the heartstrings and hit the right emotional notes.

I couldn't help but think how much nine-year-old, "Wishbone"-loving me would have delighted in this show (appropriate for ages nine and up). Hamnett's gift for interacting with young ones and making this dense material accessible will surely foster an appreciation for Shakespeare's works in theatergoers of all ages.

Running time: approximately 85 minutes with no intermission.

NEARLY LEAR runs through May 14, 2017, at the Family Theater at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC 20566. Tickets can be purchased at, at the box office, or by calling (800) 444-1324.

Photo: Susanna Hamnett in NEARLY LEAR, courtesy of the Kennedy Center website.

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From This Author Barbara Johnson