When you walk into the Overtime Theater to see David Robb’s pared-down, post-apocalyptic version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, you might think you’ve mistakenly stepped into one of the many junk shops or pawnshops surrounding the theater building on West Avenue. The set is made of mismatched, discarded technology: broken computer monitors, televisions, speakers, fenders, boom boxes, circuit boards, and handicap ramps. The mishmash of objects creates the background for a Lear that Robb adapts and transposes to 2109, a terrible future in which economic catastrophe, war, and genetically modified microorganisms have devastated the Earth.
The scenery evokes popular dystopic movies such as Children of Men and Road Warrior, films set in bleak, wasted worlds ravaged by violence and greed. These cinematic echoes are enhanced by a terrifying, fragmented video montage that shows clips of the horrible century that will befall humankind. It all starts a little too close to home with the Second Great Depression, beginning — I hope you’re sitting down for this — in 2010.
The Fool, played darkly and grotesquely by John Poole, begins the production by projecting this apocalyptic montage onto a stretched sheet above the playing space, and explaining what has happened to the world in a prologue written (in iambic pentameter) by Poole himself:
A Situation grew to a crisis.
Crisis bred war, disunion, selfishness,
Greed and then came the Blight, the Verdant Grey.
twas a mildew, issued from the triple
Father of germ war, gene splice, and nature’s
Own serendipitous sending of doom.
With the fall of the green, so fell mankind.
This setup creates an appropriately decimated atmosphere for the play. Throughout, the Fool and the video projector feed us images to remind us of the devastation in a distinctly uncomfortable way, mixing the familiar with the horrific, and making audience members cringe and stiffen. Like the set and the acting, the video extends the bleak aspects of Lear’s world uncomfortably into our own. Even the audience seats, though ordinary enough, feel found, hodgepodge, too close to the action for comfort.
In fact, little of anything in this production feels comfortable, which creates a deprivation that gets to the heart of something about Shakespeare’s play perhaps too often obscured by virtuosic acting, opulent sets, and thundering effects. Bleaker than Macbeth, more devastating than Romeo and Juliet, and more proto-existentialist in its philosophical despair than Hamlet, King Lear gives us the bare human stripped of all comforts of love, civility, family, status, and identity. Like a precursor to Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Lear loses everything — and in that loss recognizes the absurdity and ultimate emptiness of human life.
The production tells the story clearly and accessibly enough, if a bit too cartoonishly and simplistically at times. After deciding to divide his kingdom among his three daughters so that he can go into an early retirement, Lear is dismayed to find that his favorite, Cordelia, will not afford him the flattery that her sisters Goneril and Regan lavish upon him. After disowning Cordelia and sending her off to France, Lear discovers just how little he understands love when he finds himself turned out by his other, more power-hungry daughters. All he has left is his Fool, whose fooling only emphasizes Lear’s own foolishness, and Kent, whom Lear had banished for defending Cordelia but who subsequently disguises himself to find and serve the once-great king again. Left to the elements, Lear comes to terms with his new poverty and despair while losing grip on his senses. More than mere madness, his mind breaks across the cruelties and decay inherent in existence.
Running just under an hour and a half without intermission, Robb’s production has cut away all but the skeleton of Shakespeare’s play and moves swiftly to its devastating finale. While mostly effective in moving the plot along, Robb’s cuts do some violence to the subplot designed to mirror and refract Lear’s troubles. The cut script leaves out most of what we need to understand the difficult relationship between Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar the “legitimate” and Edmund the bastard (in every sense of the word). Perhaps the saddest victim of Robb’s cuts are the scenes in which Edgar, banished as a result of his bastard brother’s machinations, comes to terms with his newly discovered isolation, and the scene in which he leads his father Gloucester, recently blinded by a terrifying eye gouging, to a false precipice so that he can think he is killing himself by jumping.
Though missing much of what makes King Lear great, this production takes Lear’s core of loss and enhances it through the roughness and resourcefulness of its means. The plot is clear and the force of its story is often palpable, particularly during the Fool’s direct addresses to the audience. The set, video, and sound work are all interesting, thoughtful, and evocative.
The acting, however, is rather uneven. Poole the Fool steals the show, with a powerful and scary presence that’s more grotesque and frightening than funny. Rob Barron is subtle and believable as the bastard Edmund, though his naturalistic acting sometimes obscures the poetic clarity of his words. Scott McDowell’s legitimate Edgar rings false and has no character arc to transform him into the naked beast that Lear beholds during the storm (“thou art the thing itself!”) — but to be fair, that is in no small part because some of his scenes have been cut. Sophie Bolles is tender and nuanced as Cordelia, if occasionally melodramatic at particularly emotional moments, while Pamela Kinney as Goneril and Jules Vaquera as Regan both come off too caricatured and villainous for us to believe their father could ever have been duped by their affections.
The part of Lear, one of the most daunting acting challenges in the canon, reveals an unusual take from the actor Bill Martin. Rather than transforming from regal and arrogant to feeble and humble, Martin’s Lear transforms from a strict, bombastic military dictator to a loud-mouthed raving lunatic. When Lear decides to stay in the storm long enough to seek the wisdom of the newly homeless Edgar (“this philosopher”), he comes off as bonkers, rather than as newly aware of life at its most unadorned. Martin’s portrayal finally lacks the vulnerability, intelligence, and sensitivity to show Lear as a complex figure, though he does ring strong and loud and clear in the big speeches, and though he also reveals a softer side around Cordelia. The scenes of reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia toward the end of the play are beautifully subtle, sweet, and therefore all the more devastating.
For all its inconsistencies and omissions, this production is nonetheless well worth seeing. To say I enjoyed the piece would not do justice to its distinctly troubling power, a power born of its bold vision and even, on one level, of its amateurishness, its roughness. Robb, the actors, and the designers replace displays of virtuosity with a quick, hard punch in the gut. The set is ugly; the concept is ugly; the blocking is ugly; even much of the acting is ugly. But, to a certain degree, that’s precisely the point. Aging, dying, losing sight and sense, are all ugly. Our loss of love and community is an ugly loss. War, blight, chaos, despair: ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly. And the end of civilization as we know it, Lear’s personal fall from grace writ large, will doubtless be the ugliest act of all. •
Through Apr 4
The Overtime Theater