In the middle of the new livestreamed version of the satirical solo show “Trump Lear,” David Carl as Donald Trump sips on a long straw that is fitted into a bottle of Lysol.
It is a topical moment, and a funny one. But it’s disappointing that this is one of the few obvious changes in a stage play that debuted Off-Off Broadway in 2017, to some acclaim, and traveled twice to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Since the beginning of April, David Carl has performed it live online in a run that’s been extended to May 22.
I haven’t seen any satirical theater about Trump since September, 2018, and even then when I wrote about three such shows, it was to point out they were up against a phenomenon easily labeled Trump Fatigue.
In some central ways, “Trump Lear” is way past its expiration date, at least for me. I don’t find much about Trump funny anymore, but even if I did, much of the show’s humor and even many of Carl’s most pointed jabs feel as if they’re from another era.
Yet, there remains much to admire in the show – and something especially instructive about its translation online.
“Trump Lear” is clever in how it presents a relatively faithful if severely abridged version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, using makeshift puppets that represent characters in Trump’s orbit, and utilizing Carl’s skills as an impressionist (which were demonstrated previously in his “Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet.”) Trump’s two sons are Lear’s two daughters who fawn over him; Ivanka is Cordelia, who refuses to flatter Lear. Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un are Ivanka/Cordelia’s two suitors. Gloucester is George H.W. Bush, “George Jr.” his bastard son Edmund, Jeb his legitimate son Edgar. Ok, the analogies are at best imprecise, but it goes by quickly, and there are some playful lines that don’t involve Trump.
Kent (Bill Clinton) says to Edmund (Bush Jr.): “I instantly want to have a beer with you, even though it is widely known throughout the kingdom that you don’t drink.” Edmund to Kent: “I have to say, I am instantly charmed by your aura of sensuality.” The puppets that Carl has constructed are fun – many of them cardboard cutouts of the heads placed upon condiment bottles (mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup — I’m not sure whether the condiment bodies were carefully chosen to fit each personality, but in any case there is an anarchic payoff at the end.)
Less fun now is the meta-theatrical frame placed around Shakespeare’s plot. At the outset, Trump has kidnapped a performer named Carl David (portrayed by David Carl) who has been doing a one-man satirical show of Trump as King Lear. Trump, who has been president for 20 years and gained dictatorial powers, charges Carl with treason, and demands that he perform the show for him, at the end of which he will have him killed if he doesn’t like it.
What’s most admirable about “Trump Lear” is the effort that Carl and his director and co-writer Michole Biancosino have made to re-create online the experience of live theater as much as possible. First, each performance is live, with Carl performing the show anew each time, as he would if it were still on a stage. We’re also given instructions on settings that enhance our viewing — hiding all screens that show the audience members. The show thus can help serve as a model for Zoom theater of the future, even if most of the content feels stuck in a less perilous past.