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David Carl uses Shakespeare to skewer politicos in Trump Lear
Late-night talk-show hosts write fresh bits every day to satirize the state of the union. But solo performer and playwright David Carl decided to poke fun at the current POTUS by going back to a 400-year old script: Shakespeare's King Lear. The result, Trump Lear, is much cleverer than just sticking the Donald into the raging royal's shoes. It's a celebration of the importance of the First Amendment, with Carl imprisoned for his Trumpian take on Shakespeare's tragedy. The President (also Carl, via loudspeaker) demands the performer do the show just for him. If the leader likes it, Carl will be set free. If not, he'll be executed.
A seasoned impressionist with an MFA in Acting from Rutgers University, Carl is best known for his long-running hit David Carl's Celebrity One-Man Hamlet, in which he impersonated a deranged Gary Busey doing the Bard. In Trump Lear, produced by Project Y Theatre Company, and co-created and directed by Michole Biancosino, he channels 45 and a bunch of his cohorts, too. Kim Jong Un is the Duke of Burgundy, George H.W. Bush is the Earl of Gloucester, and Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany, respectively. Lear's children are played by Trump's progeny, with Ivanka as Cordelia, and Eric and Don Jr. as Goneril and Regan by way of Beavis and Butthead.
This kooky conceit seems to have struck a chord with Off-Off Broadway audiences: the 70-minute romp just celebrated its one-year anniversary at Under St. Marks Theater and next month it goes international at Scotland's renowned Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Carl says he's gratified that this "small act of resistance" seems to be resonating with theatregoers. "Michole and I wanted to add humor to a dark situation, but didn't want it to be an escapist show," he says. "We are concerned about the First Amendment as a metaphor for all the other rights that are in jeopardy right now. That one is the closest to us as artists. Growing up, you learn about countries that don't have the First Amendment, where artists can't create art or, if they can, it must agree with the regime. Thankfully, we don't live in a country like that… yet."
While Carl was confident he could ape Trump's distinctive voice and mannerisms, he did worry about the challenge of portraying someone he loathed. "It was the first time I questioned what I'd learned in acting school, about finding something to love about every character I play," he says. "It became a strange exercise. I see the President as a child who's bored, but also a guy who doesn't like himself very much. There are times when I don't like myself either, and that's the only way I could understand him. I'm not going to romanticize how great it is to play bad people. Iago is fun, but playing Trump is not a walk in the park."
For Edinburgh, Carl and Biancosino are working to update some references, which they'll try out here in New York as part of 59E59's East to Edinburgh festival this month. Ryan may be replaced with Bernie Sanders because the latter is better known abroad. And Kim Jong Un's part is constantly being tweaked since his relationship with Trump keeps changing. "We can hardly keep up," says Biancosino. "We started at Rocket Man and went to dotard and now it's some odd brotherly friendship. We shall see how that plays out."
Lest it be assumed that Carl only performs to the converted, he has toured Trump Lear to decidedly red states, including Texas where he was born and raised. Post-show, Carl has even talked with a few lifelong Republicans who "were concerned about what's happening to their party" he says. No Trump supporters have identified themselves as such yet, but Carl believes they might enjoy the show, too. "The President is pretty tough on my character," he says. "If you're a hardcore Trump supporter, you probably like watching him bully people."
TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for Trump Lear. Go here to browse our current offers.
Jose Solís is a NY-based writer and editor who's been covering theatre and film professionally since 2003. He is a member of the Drama Desk. Follow him at @josesolismayen. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: David Carl in Trump Lear. Photo by Eric Michael Pearson.