Confessions of a King Lear Fangirl
Confession: I am a King Lear fangirl (#teamlear anyone?). I’ve watched Akira Kurosawa’s version Ran (oh I don’t know) fifteen times? I even made sure to catch Uli Edel’s King of Texas (it’s real) starring Patrick Stewart as “John Lear.” I wrote a screenplay adaptation at seventeen un-cleverly titled Fool told entirely from Cordelia’s POV who we find out, is also the Fool. It borderlines on obsessive, I suppose. So when I caught wind that a storm was brewing in a Brooklyn Yard (literally) I was more than eager to jump from my seat and say “me! Pick me!” And I’m glad I did.
The piece was Gabrielle Reisman’s Storm, Still; an inaugural workshop production of the new play incubator known as Brooklyn Yard. This particular Bushwick nest was just one of the venues in a larger plan to develop new work in pop-up spaces around Brooklyn. There, we got our beers, doused the bug-spray and sat around a typical Brooklyn yard, surrounded by subtle-yet-effective echoes of the story (a desk, an armchair, boxes, papers), mood lighting and a centerpiece growing from the ground to invoke the literary gods and remind us that, indeed, a tree grows in Brooklyn. Storm, Still in its very concept seemed to also invoke Plato’s axiom “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden.” This quote particularly resonated in the world created by Reisman because, unlike any other loose adaptation I have seen, Reisman calls upon the performative aspect of memory hinged upon the three realities of childhood, adulthood and advanced age. On one hand, three sisters who have recently lost their father engage in an act of remembrance through re-enactment of a childhood game. Through play, they summon their childhood memories and reminisce on their time spent with their father. In their case, this invocation comes through replaying (fast and loose) King Lear. It is alluded that this was perhaps a game they used to play with their father often. After all, the girls in the modern yard are named Goneril, Regan and Cordelia so it is not hard to imagine that dead Dad was a fan of the Bard’s Lear. On the other hand, it is through the act of play, and specifically in how each girl remembers (and interprets) their father, that the reality of his disposition and ultimately how it ended up burdening (their youth, yes) but also his old age, comes to light. So quick is that revelation, however, that it parallels the flashes of lightning that announces the pending storm. I always applaud the seamlessness of theatrical and metaphorical parallels. In Lear, they are abundant: storms, blindness, sight, to name a few. However, I feel as if Reisman truly captured the perpendiculars of this highly complex story. The layer upon layer that intersect the story (Lear) with the play of a play (daughters enact Lear) at the cross-section of the ritual of remembrance – and by means of playing, these intersections reveal, inform and realize the story itself – was a nice surprise in an otherwise predictable story. This manipulation of storytelling hits the theatrical strings at a minor chord—both nostalgic, expected and as a result, tragic. Though there is nothing surprising about how the story unfolds, the nature of a pop-up space inherently invites surprise. The actresses had to talk over loud plane engines roaring above, react to real-life ambiance, and at one point, dodge the apples that were thrown at them by a disturbed neighbor. In that respect, Brooklyn Yard promises to add interesting twists to all stories it takes on.
Even with the promise of an adventure, it takes a lot to make this Manhattanite leave her burough. Hell, it takes a lot to get me out of the house most weekends. But I have to say, it wasn’t just the promise of adventure and of a King Lear remix that made me make the trek—but the company I knew I’d be literally surrounded by. Storm, Still was directed by Portia Krieger (associated with recent works at Clubbed Thumb, New Georges and Ars Nova) and it starred the delectably versatile Becca Blackwell (Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show, Tina Satter and Half Straddle’s Seagull (Thinking of you)) as the peace-keeping-yet-probing middle-child Regan, and Crystal Lucas-Perry (Little Children Dream of God at Roundabout, Sheila’s Dayat Lincoln Center) as the immovable and controlling older sister Goneril. Playing the difficult role of the youngest daughter, daddy’s girl and recently estranged Cordelia, was Claire Siebers (Tribes, ALT; Too Little Too Late HERE). The three actresses accomplished the believable delicate intricacies inherent in sisterhood on top of playing as other characters in King Lear. All took turns in the portrayal of the King. Though a bit grotesque in its caricaturesque portrayal, I walked away comforted in the idea that perhaps the King was deliberately exaggerated to accentuate a child’s memory, and his childish behavior. I do wish, however, I had seen Lear in his most vulnerable states. Playing him as such would have the domino effect necessary to break down the emotional walls between dead dad and daughters. I continue to hope that in a future version of the play (it was, afterall announced as a ‘backyard workshop’) it gives itself the chance to take a breath in the midst of playing, and in that breath, remind itself and us that the centrifugal force in this story, in this case, is recently dead and that death brings us together as much as memory does. But unlike memory, death is thick and grimy and no amount of fun can make it disappear when it is so, so near. Mind you, these are the wishes of a Lear fangirl and a helathy pessimist. The description of the play clearly states that this play “follows the three Lear sisters as they gather together to clean out their recently deceased father’s house, acting out a hilariously fast and loose version of Shakespeare’s KING LEAR in their childhood backyard.” But all wishes aside I was glad to see that there was no intention to point attention to the reality of the actors in front of us–that race wasn’t an issue, that gender wasn’t a question, that the only dynamics that carried us through were those of a story and most impressively (and those of us who come from a three-sister family understand well) that the dynamics of old, middle, young sister bullshit was pretty fucking real. And yeah that was Shakespeare alright, but that was also Reisman’s simply savory and subtle writing.
It’s good to be reminded that in the midst of loss, perhaps the best thing is to remember the ridiculousness of the situation, including the person you’ve just lost. Perhaps, in general, it is necessary to engage in child’s play in order to grow up a bit.