Theatre Reviews
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“Dreaming of Lear” played at the Kranzberg.   

Its director, Lucy Cashion, has, I think, the most refreshing brain in the St. Louis theater world.  It’s been a decade since she appeared on my horizon, and in that time she’s led a number of exciting productions.  She joined the SLU faculty and has recently become Director of the school’s Theatre & Dance Program—a position which is virtually (and was perhaps literally) “made for her”.  

“King Lear” is a monumental problem for any director.  Set aside the fact that most of us (actors included) don’t really understand a lot of the dialogue any more, and that most of the Fool’s jokes are completely lost on us now.  The deeper problem is that the play implies an enormous grandeur of passion beyond the scope of human actors.

This new production, “Dreaming of Lear,” is a “devised piece” by the combined forces of SLU and the Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre.  Such a creation involves the actors and production team in collaborative research, workshops and improvisation.  Now I’m dubious about this approach.  Some of our youngest readers may never have heard the wisecrack about a camel being “a horse designed by committee”.  (No offense to Arab nations intended.)  Well, I’ve certainly seen some pretty dreadful “devised pieces”.  And most attempts to transpose Shakespeare into modern times and issues are failures.  I surely do not want to see another lesbian “Hamlet” on Mars.

But “Dreaming of Lear” works!  It places King Lear in his natural habitat—your weirdest of dreams!  The company asked actual inmates in Missouri prisons to go to sleep while listening to recordings of “King Lear.”  The sleepers reported and discussed any resulting dreams.  From these the creation began.

Lucy Cashion’s public philosophy about theater involves Equal Representation of Artists.  I.e., designers, actors, techies, and the whole team are equal contributors to the work.  Now it was Orwell, I think, who said “All artists are equal, but some artists are more equal than others” (or something like that).   Or perhaps the old Roman idea of “primus inter pares” is more apt here.  The hand of Prof. Cashion is vividly apparent in every point of this production.  And that’s what makes it work.

We enter the Kranzberg “black box” to see designer Ryan Sherman’s modern suburban back yard:  a perfectly realistic garage door and “man door”, a timbered swing-set, a bit of picket fence.  

The cast of student actors consists of:

Celeste Gardner (Goneril)

Madeline Chatham (Regan)

Lauren Tubbe (Cordelia)

Jake Santhuff (Albany/Cornwall)

Rose Reiker (Edgar)

Jack Rimar (Edmund)

Cameron Schoeck (Kent)

Meredith Lyons (Fool)

From time to time prisoner interviews and scenes from the original Shakespearean text are projected as black-and-white movies onto the garage door.  These feature (in addition to some student actors) the formerly-incarcerated:

Eric Satterfield (Gloucester)

LaWanda Jackson (Lear)

Katie Leeman (Lear)

David Nonemaker (Knight)

These movie clips are quite professionally shot and edited, while still keeping a home-movie feel.  Joe Taylor was Video Director.

There is a 1950’s vibe here.  Lear’s three daughters are identically clad in quintessential ‘50’s shirtwaist dresses (in a pleasant green) with tiny waists, full skirts and petticoats, pretty little decorative aprons, and simple pearl necklaces.  They wear identical warm blonde bobbed wigs.  They are of an identical height and trim figure.  They are like iconic wives in old commercials for refrigerators.  Great work by costumer Lou Bird.

This is very much an ensemble piece.  Everyone is splendid—focused, intent, precise.  But I must give special praise to Meredith Lyons as the Clown—a classic clown indeed, with a bald-cap with great sprouts of orange hair, a fat-suit (of the happy blue of Superman’s tights), big shoes and a bright red nose.  She brightens many scenes.  Her mock trial, where she hops into and out of all roles—prosecutor, defendant, witness, and judge—is a comic triumph.  Her goofy riddles are groaners like you might meet on your Hallowe’en doorstep, yet they’re far better than Shakespeare’s gags.  “When does it rain money?”  “Why is a pig’s tail like the letter ‘K’?”  (For the punch lines you’ll have to come to the show.)

As in all of Cashion’s shows there is choreography—dance, or precisely synchronized movement—beautiful or weird and hypnotizing.  There’s a slow-motion battle.  There’s strange groping in the imagined dark, there is a very slow movement of the whole cast clutched together en masse—steps—and breaths—in absolute sync.

There’s music throughout—often songs about dreams: Ella singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me”, Judy with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, etc.   (Cashion and Joe Taylor designed the sound.)

There are occasional pauses for family photos, there’s the curious confession of a prisoner who has a compulsion to go nude into public places.  There’s a pitch for self-hypnosis tapes to improve your sex-life.  At one point the three sisters, on the swing set, sing a very, very beautiful “Portrait of Jenny” to simple banjo accompaniment.

It’s quite surrealistic.  Some of it is only (at the most) tangential to the tale of Lear.  But it is all fascinating.  And this cast shows such investment and discipline!

“Dreaming of Lear” is a brilliant, memorable piece of leading-edge experimental theater.  It played at the Kranzberg February 29 through March 3.

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