NEW YORK — THEATER is ephemeral. Once the final curtain comes down, a show is gone forever - and a run of two decades is mighty rare. Yet the adventurous Mabou Mines troupe has been around just that long. It's now celebrating its 20th anniversary with an extended season at the downtown Triplex Theater, beginning with a long-awaited event: ``Lear,'' director Lee Breuer's reworking of Shakespeare's play into a Southern gothic film noir tragicomedy. It's rude, it's radical, it's outrageous. And it's one of the most powerful Shakespeare productions I've seen in a long time. Reinterpretation of classics has become a commonplace in modern theater. The world champion of the practice may be Peter Sellars, who has updated Mozart by transplanting ``Don Giovanni'' to a New York City ghetto and ``Cosi fan Tutte'' to a '70s-style diner, among other feats.
He has nothing on Mr. Breuer when it comes to explosive ideas, however. ``Lear'' gets underway at a ``birthday barbecue'' in Smyrna, Georgia, where the action takes place in the late 1950s. The title character is not a king but a wealthy matriarch, who divides her property among sons instead of daughters. Shakespeare's Edmund and Edgar become Elva and Edna, while the Duke of Burgundy becomes just Burgundy, a pretty teenager decked out for a high-school dance. And so forth, from female versions of Gloucester and Kent to a Fool who plays most of his scenes in drag.
THE effect of Breuer's gender reversals is twofold. At particular moments, they lend a new piquancy to many lines and scenes, uncovering nuances not readily apparent in conventional readings of the text. In the play as a whole, they make a forcible reminder that problems of power, wealth, and loyalty are not the exclusive property of males. The devices of the production rarely get in the way of consummate acting. Southern accents, folksy costumes, and all, most of the interpretations are uncommonly clear and convincing by any Shakespearian standard.
In working out his conception of ``Lear'' on the stage, Breuer never errs on the side of caution. The action slides from one unexpected location to another - pausing one moment on the porch behind a farmhouse, then racing down a deserted country road on its way to a ``pitch'n'putt'' golf course and finally a trash dump on the outskirts of town. Most of these are suggested rather then etched in detail, only a few seem strained. Many scenes involve old-model cars that glide speedily about the stage, and the climax of the evening's first act is a highway accident that couldn't be more startling in its raw, surrealistic impact. Breuer has long approached theater as a kind of live-action cinema, and his techniques are at their cleverest and most convincing in ``Lear.''
THE cast is almost a ``Who's Who'' of top Off-Off-Broadway talent. Ruth Maleczech, a Mabou Mines regular, plays the title role with unflagging subtlety and conviction.
Bill Raymond and the consistently brilliant Ron Vawter play Goneril and Regan with mingled tones of the mischievous and the malicious. Ellen McElduff is close to perfect as Elva, an old-movie ``Ruby Gentry'' clone. Isabell Monk, Kimberly Scott, and Karen Evans-Kandel also make strong showings, and Black-Eyed Susan lends her inimitable presence (and skill) as Albany.
This said, it must be added that the production falters in its attempts at out-and-out humor. Lola Pashalinski is deeply effective in Kent's quiet moments; and Greg Mehrten, as the Fool, has one superb scene as he comforts his tormented traveling companion. But both performers turn into vulgar, overbearing boors in their more clownish scenes.
This doesn't spoil the invention that marks other aspects of the production, though. Additional assets include an ingenious set design full of evocative playing areas and cleverly devised perspectives; atmospheric lighting by Arden Fingerhut with Lenore Doxsee; and a moody score by veteran composer Pauline Oliveros, punctuated with neatly timed bits of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley.
``Lear'' continues through Feb. 11, to be followed by reconstructions of four earlier works by Mabou Mines members: ``The B. Beaver Animation,'' the dark Francis Xaver Kroetz drama ``Through the Leaves,'' and two Samuel Beckett dramatizations, ``Cascando'' and ``Come & Go.''