King Lear’s CalShakes adaptation demonstrates mastery of modern audience engagement
As many of you know, I’ve spent some time covering the theater scene during the pandemic. My interest is both private and professional. In 2020, after a 25-year hiatus, I rejoined the community of SF Bay Area producers and sought to apply what I’d learned over the years as a communications strategist to my work. A number of artists have remained relevant by blending both new and traditional story sources. It reminds me of what an influential media theorist once observed. There are two types of media. place binding Media connect people across cultural and geographical borders. Think news, online and in print. On the other hand there is time bound Media that connect people across historical boundaries. Think art, history, religion.
A typical case is Lear at CalShakes (California Shakespeare Festival), a fresh adaptation of the old warhorse, praised by a local critic for his perfectly understandable English. I would like to share and add to this praise. Lear, by Marcus Gardley – a local playwright/poet with a national reputation – engages contemporary audiences in a more powerful way.
Starting with the setting. This Lear takes place confidently in the here and now, telling a story set in the late 1960s (a nice exercise in distancing). And it’s a story about a prosperous Black Bay Area, where power is expressed not just in money but in the ideology of rebellion (the Black Panthers get a big nod). Gardley boldly exploits the fact that CalShakes clients can relate to the problems of the privileged. Lear’s dead Black Queen (Velina Brown) – a character Gardley adds to the narrative – tells the audience, “You’re all holding court, which means you’re evil and bougie and kinda rich too. See what a theater ticket gets you? You are welcome.”
This Lear’s “I’m talking to you, Mister” approach lends accessibility, following the rhythms and sounds of Black Bay culture, delivered by the jazzy, mournful beat of two musicians on stage. The Black Queen sings throughout, penetrating the open sky with her voice while interrupting the complex storyline with a simple, smooth, continuous line (more on that later). While contextualizing Lear in modern settings is nothing new, this Lear does it effectively and with humor. In one scene, Kent commands, “Hurry to Hayward” – the equivalent of “Hurry to Hoboken” if that play were performed in New York. Words seldom spoken by the bad guys and bougies.
The piece also grabs you physically. The sexual play between evil sisters Goneril (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Regan (Emma Van Lare) and their lover is more pronounced and believable than in other productions I’ve seen. And the stage fights – so boring in so much Shakespeare – are actually frightening, fueled by both the acting and the acrobatics of some of the men in the cast. Jomar Tagatac, who plays a nuanced Edmund with malevolence and gloating, believably engages in a knife fight with brother Edgar (Dane Troy). With few exceptions, co-directors Eric Ting (outgoing CalShakes Artistic Director) and Dawn Monique Williams manage to keep the pulse going throughout the play in places that often stutter.
But even that, while remarkable, is not new; is very little under the sun. Where Gardley really scores is in the roots of this timeless story of redemption. if Lear resonates with you, that’s probably because the story of Lear is one very much older and better known than Shakespeare. The bard borrowed stories from the royals. But occasionally he went back much further. Gardley only hints at the source when Edmund warns early in the play that things are “getting biblical.” What Shakespeare borrowed, and Gardley seems to underscore, is the ultimate Western story of redemption, the Book of Job. Lear (a thunderous, physically imposing James A. Williams) loses everything, but not because God and Satan were betting on the steadfastness of his faith. Lear has himself to blame. But like Job, he is redeemed after an unforgiving storm (the “hurricane” in Job) when he is reunited with his good daughter (a blissful Cordelia, played by Sam Jackson; she forgives him as God forgives Job). The play ends with a captivating tableau in which all the actors on the stage, dead and alive, was standing together (wait for it), with the daughters rising up the set to the Black Queen. Gardley closes with a woman’s voice, just as he begins with the dead queen’s voice. But here the voice belongs to Lear’s faithful friend Kent – a woman in Gardley’s adaptation – who accepts the crown because no remaining man dares to become king. Played triumphantly by the great Cathleen Ridley, she sweeps the stage against the tableaux and challenges the audience to think.
Remember Lear when your neighbor or loved one is in need
When you make yourself unpopular, when you do the right thing, or when no one is looking
Every day lives from a good deed.
Remember Lear and those who came before us.
Those who lived on this land migrated here and were banished
Remember Lear and remember we are all descended from people who were here before Lear!
We all must bear the weight of this time and say what we feel, not what we should say.
Our elders have kept us safe so far. We, the ones who remain, must move forward now.
And so this story ends, black, bold, and regal (what perfect timing). But rooted in antiquity, it rumbles under our feet and commands us stand, the name of the 1969 Sly Stone R&B meets funk meets gospel Melody that serves as a musical outro as we ascend to exit the amphitheater. We are connected across cultural and historical borders.