Thursday, November 6, 2014

An Age-Old Story

Stop me if you've heard this:

An elderly parent, quite possibly losing his faculties, engages in domestic discord with his offspring. The adult children quibble with the parent and each other as property is divvied up and brain marbles plop out and roll across the shiny floors of a manse.

It's almost impossible these days to avoid news articles on Alzheimer's, dementia, living wills and how to have "that talk" with an aging parent. As it turns out, the Elizabethans dealt with similar issues and our old pal, William Shakespeare, wrote it down in King Lear.

Of course, the Bard being the Bard, he escalates the plot to dizzying heights. Sisters fight over a lover, spike drinks with poison, send old friends into the stocks and yank out eyeballs. As with all of Shakespeare's tragedies, the audience is left to count up the bodies.

It's great fun to watch other families handle their business so errantly.

I had the pleasure of attending opening night of the Globe Theatre's production of King Lear at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. In keeping with the original style of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre — which, by the way, burned down because real cannon fire was used in the war scenes — this production is set on a rustic stage without lighting changes. The actors and the audience are lit as if they are all gathered on a sunny day in London circa 1607.

This production of King Lear was directed by Bill Buckurst, with only eight actors playing all the parts. I applaud the sheer energy and imaginative approach of this production. Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, is all one hopes the character to be in the hands of Bethan Cuillinane. Astonishingly, this same actor takes on the task of playing the Fool. With vocal and physical changes she clambers all over the King, teasing and pulling off some very tricky Shakespearean jokes.

Her duplicitous sisters, Goneril (Gwendolen Chatfield) and Regan (Shanaya Rafaat) gambol about the stage singing, playing musical instruments, and additionally taking on many male roles.

Bill Nash, as the loyal Kent, is committed to giving his all, as is Daniel Pirrie, having a whale of a time as the evil Edmund. These actors also play multiple roles, with the slipping on of a hat, cloak and dialect adjustment. They are matched equally in skill and with a brazen attack on the text by Alex Mugnaioni as Edgar and John Stahl as the tragic and blinded Gloucester.

Topping off this adept and gifted cast is Joseph Marcell as the lord himself, King Lear. Marcell embraces the madness of a man losing his mind, his family and his royal status. His constant swerving and surprising choices had me agape and transfixed. Where would he go next? What would he do now?

No acting decision Marcell makes is expected, right down to his skewed and oh-so-human entrance carrying (spoiler alert!) the dead Cordelia. She is splayed in his arms as if he'd seized her off the floor in a moment of emotional reckoning.

A signature scene of King Lear is the storm sequence, and we're used to seeing this with all the high-tech bells and whistles modern theatre can provide. Not here. Not for the Globe Theatre, no siree. Every actor participates in creating the sounds of rain, thunder and swishing gales — yet I'm pretty certain I saw soaking-wet, windblown characters. Magnificent.

This acting ensemble provides universally strong performances, which is no mean feat because they are asked to do so much. Opening and closing the show, the actors joined together in a rousing, foot-stomping song that had me feeling transported through time as a likely groundling cheering for more blood, guts and family wrath.

The production runs until November 16th. The Broad Stage offers a 20% discount for weekday tickets: code LEAR.

photos by Ellie Kurttz

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Everybody Has a Story

I have a confession:

As autumn and winter settle in and early darkness descends, I enjoy evening neighborhood strolls because I spy. Yes, with my little eye, I spy.

Sometimes a family shouting over each other as they gather for dinner, or a lone fellow plucking strings on a guitar, or a couple in their armchairs watching a widescreen TV spilling images of the day's news. And I wonder about these people. I wonder if their dreams are fulfilled and if their disappointments are bearable because I know they each have a compelling story.

Recently, I guest taught a Shakespeare workshop to eleven-year-olds at an elementary school. Two sixth-grade classes gathered in a single classroom to participate. There was one teacher present. I began by storytelling Hamlet and his need for revenge. Once I'd completed my synopsis I said, "Pencils up! Five minutes, write about a time when you wanted revenge....Now, go!"

And they did, fast and furious, scribbling away as the minutes ticked by. Then I extended an invitation for them to share their writing aloud. You can imagine there were lots of BFF betrayals, and many sibling grievances, and terrible parental misunderstandings, all wholly unfair and deserving of revenge.

Then there was Alisha. A dark-haired girl in a yellow T-shirt with her tentative arm raised.

"Would you like to read what you've written?" I asked.

"Yes," she said, looking down at the paper clutched in her fingertips. "But I might cry."

"Okay," I held up a tissue box. "I'm ready, if you are. Go for it."

Alisha's sister had died. And Alisha wanted revenge on the drunk driver who killed her sister.

The tears came. The kids stared. The teacher was frozen in place because this wasn't her student, she did't know this girl and hadn't heard this story.

I moved toward Alisha with a handful of tissues and an arm ready to pull her close.

Are teachers trained for these moments? Are there practice sessions for such unexpected, shocking tales? I was thrust into a scenario of "Think fast and don't mess up!"

With my arm around Alisha's shoulders, I addressed the class because, above all, a teaching moment had presented itself. The kids' eyes were wide; they weren't sure what to do with this very real-life story.

"Alisha has demonstrated huge courage and we understand why she would want revenge."

What I witnessed next was a wave of empathy rising, en masse, from Alisha's peers.

"And here's the thing about art, " I continued. "Every dancer, singer, painter, musician, writer or actor has to have courage because their work carries their personal story. We don't just play Hamlet like he's some other guy. We play him as if he is us. We have to identify with his pain, his anger and his desire for revenge. Not everyone can do this. That's what makes the artist unique. The courage."

The tears were wiped, the nose was blown and a friend of Alisha's took her to the bathroom. Other children read their revenge stories and my hour with them came to a close. As I was bidding farewell, Alisha and her friend returned from the bathroom.

I took Alisha's face in my hands and said, "I wonder if you noticed that when you shared your writing, how much power you had? I wonder if you noticed that everyone listened and everyone cared? Your courage and your power will always stand by you, Alisha."

Yup, everybody has a story.

Shakespeare just wrote them down. Really, really well.


My characters name is Lord Capulet and he lives in Verona. He wants his daughter Juliet to mary a man named cout Paris. In the end the gangs learn a lesson. They learn the violence is rong.

This is my second year in the Shakespeare club. I'm not as nervous about the performance as I was last year because I am experienced and that will help me with this performance.

Many people have heard of the story "Romeo and Juliet" but most people don't know what the story is about. And it's mostly kids that don’t know. So the Shakespeare Club gives the kids a chance to perform real plays written by William Shakespeare.

—Cole, 5th grade

1: Recentering El Pueblo; 2: JoelMontes (Creative Commons BY-SA)