Opening night was every bit as exciting as Samantha Ravenna Shay had hoped it would be.
The house at Los Angeles’s Bootleg Theatre, a multipurpose performance space nestled in the city’s ethnically rich Westlake neighborhood, was packed. The show, Shay’s own physically rigorous, woman-centered reinvention of King Lear, proceeded without a hitch. Its climactic moments, particularly the storm-on-the-heath scene—engineered poor-theatre style with thunderous rumblings and slashes of light piercing a great, undulating wall of clear plastic—held spectators rapt. Shay’s accomplished international cast of four women and one man, who tackled multiple roles of varied genders, got a hearty standing ovation.
It was a couple of days later that the trouble started.
Shay, a 30-year-old director, actress, and founder of the Portland, Ore.-based collective Source Material, got a morning-after email from a local theatre reviewer, veteran critic Stephen Fife, who had attended the show’s second performance. “Why call it King Lear? That’s the title of a play by Shakespeare,” Fife’s message began. “Your production,” he continued importunately, “really has no right to call itself by the same name as the texts it attempts to reflect upon…I have no idea what it was trying to say.”
Gauntlet down. The nerve this message struck, Shay realized, was the very organ that animated and sustained her over the two-year course of her show’s development, first in workshops in New York City and Massachusetts, then at a festival residency in Reykjavik, Iceland (where she has frequently presented work), and finally at its official debut in April at the Bootleg in L.A. The Source Material production is next slated to be seen in New York, in a Sept. 26-Oct. 6 run at HERE Arts Center, then in May 2020 at the San Francisco International Arts Festival.
For Shay, a top-line concern throughout the show’s rigorous collaborative process had been the legitimacy of inherited, time-honored ideas—not unlike those of her outspoken critic, perhaps—about what it means to be “reverent” or “faithful” to a masterwork. She had noted the dilemma in her program notes: “What is the actual space between an adaptation and the play itself? And what does it mean to see this or any play in 2019? These are the kinds of questions this King Lear is asking.”
A response to her fast-draw correspondent seemed called for, so Shay fired back with a message the following day. And her polite but occasionally indignant response might serve as a model for mending certain breaches of the boundaries between artist and critic.
“I questioned if I would call the play something else,” Shay admitted to Fife, “and ultimately chose to keep the original title, because all great artists, Shakespeare, Chekhov, or Ibsen included, were radicals of their age, letting their impulses work through them in a way that was unprecedented. In fact, they probably received reviews just like the email you sent.
“So, no, I do not agree that this is not King Lear,” she went on. “It is my job as an artist to stand between my artistic ancestors and look ahead to my descendants, and risk ferociously. Thank you for being challenged. It is assumptions like yours that make my work what it is.”
The message didn’t go down well. Shay woke at 3 a.m. to discover another missive from her nascent reviewer—and this one, she felt, crossed the line into verbal abuse. Fife suggested she leave the theatre to become a schoolteacher, congratulated her on “making the audience fall asleep,” and reprimanded her for the arrogance it took to make a piece that was more about her than about King Lear. Shay’s email chain had been deleted, so the message came seemingly out of the blue.
Shay was unnerved, but the next installment of the exchange arrived in short order the next day: a sincerely worded apology from Fife for his “ill-considered response” and for inappropriately sharing his pre-review opinions. (The final installment, the apologist’s unmitigated pan of Shay’s effort, appeared a few days later on the digital site Stage Raw.)
Fife, a former Off-Broadway playwright and the author of the 2004 book Best Revenge: How the Theater Saved My Life and Has Been Killing Me Ever Since, is an opinion-maker with credentials. But in the case of Shay’s purposefully transgressive riff on Lear, what real difference—aside from a few ticket sales, perhaps—should one disgruntled journalist’s censorious reaction make? Why bother talking about it? For her part, Shay thinks the dust-up was both relevant and instructive.
“That kind of reaction is what adventurous, so-called experimental artists have to deal with all the time,” she avowed, amending her point with a mention of women and people of color. “I’m arguing on behalf of all of us out there taking risks, making art—and especially those who think Shakespeare isn’t for them, who’ve been told they ‘don’t look the part.’ Fuck that. We all belong.”
I had been there for the show’s opening performances as well, feeling more sympathetic to Shay and company’s dramaturgical deep-dig than the reviewer in question, but at the same time recognizing how befuddling the production might seem to those who’d arrived expecting some semblance of the Lear narrative tucked in the back of their minds. For them, some key items were missing.
The text, for one thing. A modest selection of the play’s most famous lines was salvaged—the king’s “nothing comes from nothing” speech, Cordelia’s “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth,” Kent’s “a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats” put-down of Oswald—spoken as often as not by characters other than those designated in Shakespeare’s original. Most of the male figures in the cast list were absent as well, including (quite purposefully, Shay will tell you) the titular monarch himself.
“Why no Lear? A few reasons,” she explained over coffee during a morning-after-opening interview at a Silverlake organic eatery. “I was interested in the voices of the disenfranchised characters in the play—all the daughters, Edmund, Edgar, and so on. What if they took over the narrative, in order to prevent these terrible things from happening again?
“In the first workshop I did have an actor, a great guy, playing Lear, but he was afraid to play the role as I saw it—instances of toxic masculinity and patriarchal abuse, suggestions of incest. That experience made me decide to veer in another direction, and have the lesser characters gain control of the play.”
That takeover not only excised the play’s protagonist and empowered his subjects, it introduced a couple of characters Shakespeare mentioned only in passing—most notably, the long-suffering, violence-prone mother of the king’s three daughters. Mom is played with physical precision by Grotowski-trained actor Ditte Berkeley, known for her work with the ground-breaking Polish company Teatr ZAR.
What’s Mom got to do with it? “Childhood trauma, cycles of abuse, how we become who we are, based on our ability to heal ourselves or not—that’s what this play is about for me,” Shay asserts. “We explored that in scenes with the mother and the daughters.” While Shay’s rendition elides much of Lear’s bad behavior, in its place come chest-beating flashbacks with Mom, wrenching episodes that illuminate the twisted allegiances of Goneril (played by Danish singer/performer Nini Julia Bang, another ZAR veteran), Regan (Annemarie de Bruijn, actor, producer, and leader of the Dutch theatre company the Fifth Act), and Cordelia (award-winning New York-based performer Annelise Lawson, who doubles as the play’s other banished child, Edmund).
For some two-thirds of its 60-minute-plus length, the performance was a convocation of Lear’s women—until a man showed up onstage (Canadian-born actor Bob Wicks, a member of the actor-training faculty at Massachusetts’ Shakespeare & Company), and things got even more complicated. “He’s not standing in for any character,” Shay proffered (though the program tied him to Gloucester and Edgar). “He represents male images and archetypes. The audience has to complete the work—they can decide who he is.”
Unsurprisingly, Archetypal Man fared poorly in this feminized, Learless kingdom, and soon he was exhibiting corporeal symptoms of distress and madness that in another production would have afflicted the king himself.
Shay spun out her polemic on power and subjection on an almost bare stage, dominated by the wall-to-wall-to-floor expanse of manipulable plastic that so dynamically morphed into the production’s climactic storm: “I really like it when we’re not hiding anything from the audience—the plastic is there, but when it moves and becomes a tool of the storytelling, they can see something coming from nothing. Without objects, without video, we construct this magical moment.”
A less emphatic but equally revelatory bit of staging followed, wrapping up (quite literally) the tale of Lear by way of Cordelia’s violated consciousness.
While Lawson’s Edmund had appeared on the heath in a straitjacket, a consequence of his villainy, her Cordelia wore a puff-sleeved camisole, decorative in its femininity. After the character’s unjust death, Cordelia sat centerstage as her sisters loosened and stretched the sleeves of her garment to the corners of the stage, forming a great, emblematic V. This stage, this story, she seemed to declare, belongs not to my once-powerful father, but to me.
Ceremoniously, the sisters wrapped the sleeves round and round her motionless form, covering all.
Jim O’Quinn is the founding editor of this magazine.