King Lear

Theater on the Fringes

Last month Playbill ran an article on theater groups raising money for their projects through Kickstarter. One example was Old Sound Room, a troupe comprised of current and former Yale School of Drama students. In June, the group’s inaugural production, Old Sound Room Lear, played for 9 performances in Harlem. The show presented an interesting mix of Shakespeare's King Lear—significantly condensed in running time, shorn of many characters and combining others—and contemporary theater touches, such as movement, musical interludes, and the voices of interviewees at the Lilian Booth Home for retired actors. OSR Lear placed front and center the story of Lear as a tale of aging, of the aged coming to terms with their changed status—loss of youth—and with the freshness of the next generation, compelled by ideas of its own. If that doesn’t quite sound like the play you remember, that’s the point. Old Sound Room side-stepped the tragic aspects of the play in an effort to find something more upbeat.

YSD students gain great training in how to speak Shakespeare, so that element of the show was strong—King Lear being one of the greatest plays ever written, of course—and they also undergo immense challenges of compression in what are called “Shakespeare Quartets” where an extremely scaled-down cast of four or five tackles one of the Bard’s plays in intensive workshop productions. Such skills served OSR in good stead in their version of Lear.

Special mention should be made of Brian Wiles as Lear—head shaved for the occasion like a sort of sinister Daddy Warbucks; his rages were in-keeping with a Lear not mad so much as vain with an old man’s self-regard that added pathos to the performance. The scene on the heath in the storm was particularly memorable with Wiles bound by several ropes he tugged this way and that, making scary lunges at the nearby audience. As the evil sisters, Goneril and Regen, Elia Monte-Brown and Adina Verson, respectively, managed to find some good in the girls, as daughters beset by an unruly and uncooperative elder who has “ever but slenderly known himself.” It was easy to picture the offspring of aged Baby Boomers joining forces against the spoiled brats their parents have become, with Sophie von Haselberg's Fool a kind of doting stepchild.

Fisher Neal, as Kent, engaged Lear from time to time with lively argument, and Laura Gragtmans gave an affecting aura to Cordelia who combined with the role of Edgar—Gloucester’s good son—and ended alive by her father’s side. Here, with no Gloucester in the cast, Lear endured the blinding that befalls the latter, ending his days in peace with his faithful daughter, à la Oedipus, blinded and beggared at Colonus. The condensation of the play created a more recuperative evening, but it made of Edmund (Dan O’Brien) a more toothless villain such as is found in Shakespeare’s comedies. O’Brien did a nice turn as the discontented upstart, unmatched, here, with any good brother to "gall his kibe."

In some ways, the effect was a bit like watching half the play, but OSR found a way to extend their chosen theme by enacting the interviewees from the Booth retirement home. This turned out to be one of my favorite features, as the cast was uniformly entertaining in their staging of aged actors and actresses commenting on Lear and recounting what the process of maturing has meant for them. The movement segments were less clearly apropos, though they made for some swift transitions, while other touches—such as Gragtmans’ very eerie rendition of “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”—added striking interludes.

So, what’s next for the group? According to Adina Verson, she and OSR Lear’s director, Michael McQuilken, have put together a show called Machine Makes Man which they are preparing to launch in the Amsterdam Fringe Festival under the umbrella of OSR. The Festival is smaller than some—such as New York’s—and is more selective, with the participants put up for the duration of their 6 performances. The show received input from the other OSR members, and there is talk of trying to get the piece installed within an alliance of 9 to 10 different Fringe Festivals in Europe and South Africa, which would give the group a base on a touring circuit. There’s hope too that MMM will find its way to New York, perhaps as early as the fall.

Machine Makes Man is based on the idea of “the singularity” as espoused in the writings of Ray Kurzweil, wherein technological advances overtake the human species’ ability to process them. In other words, living in the future will require “enhanced humans” who have developed beyond “an outdated homo sapien,” to use Ray Davies’ line. In the not-too-distant future, a married couple face the ramifications of enhancing themselves. Specifically, the husband has opted to become “a cloud of energy” and the wife pays a visit to the company responsible for the technology to complain, which sets off a flashback about how the couple got to that point.

Kurzweil, now the head of engineering at Google, has been a major player in the development of technologies with strong human interface, such as translating between languages and the text-to-speech synthesizer, and argues for mankind's improvement through technology. Taking its cue from how transgender characters are portrayed in our culture, Machine Makes Man aims to dramatize the condition of the “transhuman”—an idea Kurzweil sees as key to the future.

And what of the future of OSR? The group has been learning the ropes of being an up-and-coming DIY theater group—which means writing grants and applying for non-profit status—and, because the group’s first show followed hard upon the group’s founding, OSR has still to hash-out what kind of company they want to be. Clearly, the main design is for collaborative theater, though it may be that various theatrical outings may join beneath the OSR banner so long as some of the members are at its core. There are further plans to workshop Lear, though it can’t be done for the same kind of venue due to the “showcase code”—which means that something more in-depth and definite is likely to emerge by and by that is very like Lear and yet not.

For now, the 12 members of OSR have dispersed their divers ways—some returning as students to YSD productions in the fall—to meet again anon.

Still Don't Know How He Did It: Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man 'King Lear'

The production of King Lear by Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan mixes the ancient and the modern to startling effect. As a one-man show featuring Wu Hsing-kuo, who also directed the show and adapted it from its source, King Lear becomes a series of vignettes that dramatize both the high theatricality of Shakespeare’s play as well as what might be thought of as its folklore elements, and ends with a reflection on theater itself.

The story of a king who ill-advisedly chooses to divide his kingdom among his daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia -- King Lear is also a story of the aged being mistreated by the young.  The harsh treatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan is matched by the story of Gloucester, who foolishly trusts his illegitimate son, Edmund, and becomes a blind and broken man, assisted by his legitimate son Edgar in the disguise of a mad beggar.

Condensing the plot and subplot into a three-act structure running under two hours in length requires a certain skill in dealing in broad strokes. Wu Hsing-kuo’s Lear begins with the madness of Lear, and the scene of his frantic condition in a thunderstorm. Having banished his loyal daughter, Cordelia, and been mistreated by his other daughters, Lear wanders a heath, calling on the gods for comfort. Screens to the right and left of the stage translate the Chinese dialogue, but words are less important in this opening scene than the stylized acting, an interplay of gesture and music. The rapid rhythms of the Lee Yi-Chin’s score create an anxious texture that seems to surround Lear, producing an atmosphere of confusion and conflict.

Costumes (by Tim Yip) are also of great importance to the production, as the long flowing hair and beard of Lear are expressive devices as used by Wu, as are his truly majestic robes. Seeing such an impressive figure flail about the stage, wringing his hands, doing flips and falls, we know at once he’s mad and the entire scene becomes a great man’s struggle with his own nature. If the great can become the low, where can certainty be found? Wu’s Lear is a study of warring mannerisms that finally ends with the king humbled, placing flowers in his hair while recalling giving a flower to his youngest daughter whose loss he now mourns.

At this point Wu emerges from his King Lear costume and speaks to us an actor or, as he says, Lear’s storyteller. Having set aside the costume of Lear he indicates that there is more to the story, and the first act ends.

The second act is all about transformations as Wu begins in the character of Lear’s Fool who enlivens the tale from the perspective of the lowly. At first he was no better than Lear’s dog, but now he sees Lear as a foolish king, reduced to a figure of fun. Wu’s monologue as the Fool skillfully establishes satire as an attitude toward Lear’s court, and this view is extended into his enactments of the three daughters. This part of the play, in which Wu costumes himself in the regal trappings of the emperor’s daughters, and depicts the vain and deceitful characters of Goneril and Regan, with all the  grace of Beijing opera, is striking, creating a world of ritual manners, in contrast to the lowly Fool’s bent-knee postures, that is beguiling but also comical.

After Cordelia strikes a sincere contrast to her sisters, Wu transforms again — giving us in brief the story of Edmund’s false defense of his father Gloucester, Edgar’s transformation into “poor Tom,” and finally, and most dramatically, Gloucester’s search for death on a high cliff. Having said that, I still don’t know how Wu managed to recreate all these scenes in such rapid succession; I do know that the image of Gloucester on the rocks surrounded by mist and the surging sounds of the ocean will stay with me for a while.

Gloucester’s leap to darkness is followed by a voice narrating the eventual reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar, and this introduces the last act: Wu Hsing-kuo in his own character as the Actor. Speaking still within the stylized context of the play, Wu addresses us as an actor who is a character and a character who is an actor. At once, the skillful transformations we have watched become a series of artificial identities that trap the Actor.

The final speech comments on a quality of the play that is hard to pin down: these roles are not only Shakespeare’s, but were selected by him from older sources, and, in this current form, now translated into the words and rhythms and costumes of Chinese theater, they take on a wider application, a global reach we might say. And this new formulation of Lear shows how the situations in the play—the family drama, the generational tensions, the class elements, the archetypal nature of a blind man being led by a mad man—have become emblematic myths told about the human condition. Wu’s final statements struck me as a realization not only of the tragedy of Lear, but of the sorrow of theater itself as a world that can only pretend to be true.

Wu Hsing-kuo and the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan have memorably transformed King Lear into an experience of theater as both timeless and contingent.


IF YOU GO: Who: King Lear by the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan When: 8 p.m. June 29 Where: University Theatre, 222 York St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info:

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Freilichin Purim

The current offering at the Yale Cabaret features a trip into the past: turn of the century Yiddish theater is invoked to create the proper spirit in which to view The Yiddish King Lear.  Rather than a Yiddish language version of Shakespeare, as was created by Jacob Gordin in 1903 and whose work this production draws on, Martha Kaufman and Lauren Dubowski’s adaptation presents the story of Reb Dovidl (William DeMerrit), a patriarch at Purim who wants to engage in some festive drinking with his family and distribute jewels to his lovely daughters: two of whom, Etele (Prema Cruz) and Gitele (Tanya Dean) are married, while the third, his favorite, Taybele (Alex Trow) has a suitor—Yaffe (Chris Bannow) known as the “heretic” and the “unbeliever.”  Thus there are Lear-like tensions in this story right from the start. Like Lear, Reb Dovidl, after smoothing over Taybele’s rebuff when she refuses the costly brooch he would lavish upon her, decides to partition his worldly goods amongst his three children—so he can live the rest of his days, unburdened by care, in Israel.  His eldest daughter, married to the unsympathetic Avrom Harif (Benjamin Fainstein), is only too happy to take over management of the estate, while the second daughter, a bit more conscientious, though married to a partying pseudo-scholar (Mamoudou Athie), goes along.  Only Taybele, Cordelia-like, demurs.  Lest anyone in the audience miss the echoes of Shakespeare, Yaffe tells the old man his unreasoning behavior makes him “the Yiddish King Lear.”  He tells him this first in naturalistic style, and then again in the more operatic style of turn-of-the-century theater. And that’s the nature of the “two worlds at once” fun of this production, directed by Whitney Dibo.

As the master of ceremonies (Paul Lieber) informs us at the start (in something of a come-and-go Yiddish accent), we are going to witness a feat of “naturalism”—the cutting-edge theatrical technique of the time.  With that said, it’s quite entertaining to watch the YSD students give us dated “naturalistic” acting, in quotation marks, as it were.  The power/comedy of the naturalism is underscored by the show’s best feature: audience members who are also part of the show, lending a kind of hilarious hysteria to the proceedings as they “ooh” and “ah” at plot turns and shout advice to the characters (not to the actors, mind you), and, at one particularly distressing point, have to be calmed by Reb Dovidl himself.  On opening night these audience players included Lieber, Kate Tarker, Joshua Safran, who reads between scenes a statement about theater that invokes actors as gods, and Inka Guðjónsdóttir, the most vocal and comically stressed-out of the onlookers.

As contrast to all that naturalism, there’s a play within the play: a stagey enactment of the Purim story whereby Esther (Trow) thwarts the murderous Haman (Fainstein)—he of the famous tri-cornered hat that inspired the shape of hamentaschen (very tasty versions of which are supplied on the tables, courtesy of Westville Kosher Market), so that “nothing bad will ever happen to the Jews again!”  That line, voiced by Trytel (Matt McCollum), Reb Dovidl’s fool, gives a fair idea of the spirit of the show, both respectful and enthusiastic about the sources but also winking at the naïvete of the era.  Entertainingly and affectionately, the production celebrates how important theater was to Jewish immigrants. As Lieber says between scenes: the two sights everyone was immediately taken to see upon arrival in Brooklyn were the Brooklyn bridge, and the Yiddish theater.

Special credit to the set decorator, Brian Dudkiewicz, the musicians providing both musical accompaniment and sound effects—Tess Isaac, Martha Kaufman, Elizabeth Kim—and the spirited cast, especially DeMerritt’s moody paternalism and over-the-top recognition of himself as “the Yiddish King Lear”; Trow’s applause-demanding grandstanding everytime Taybele expresses views about female and male equality or hypes her knowledge as a doctor; McCollum, for Trytel’s grumpy asides and his devotion to Reb Dovidl; and Bannow’s Yaffe in his rationalist raining on the ritual.

The sense of pride and participation in theater, as an art that centers a community and puts on stage the kinds of stories the people recognize as part of their own lives, isn’t a bad goal to have and is one that the Cabaret, for its coterie of enthusiasts, often satisfies.  L’chaim.


The Yiddish King Lear Directed by Whitney Dibo Adapted, Assembled, and Created with Martha Kaufman and Lauren Dubowski Based on Jacob Gordin’s 1903 play

Yale Cabaret March 8-10, 2012