After getting so used to the more intimate performance spaces of the East Bay, it was strange seeing the production of The Beard of Avon in a house as big as San Francisco's ACT. (Chalk up another advantage for East Bay theaters: you can see the actor's faces from every seat.)
But Beard is a clever show -- a Valentine to actors and an amusement for even the most casual of Shakespeare scholars. The idea is that the man we know as William Shakespeare was not actually the author of any of his plays, but rather a front for a nobleman who already was out of every closet except the most scandalous, that of the writer. This production would have us believe that the fellow with the receding hairline whose image is almost as well-known as the Mona Lisa was, if anything, an Elizabethan script doctor. I mention this because, in a play full of good lines, one of the best came from a producer anxious to have Shakespeare iron out some problems with the nascent King Lear, penned by a lady of the court: "It's about three sisters, and the reading of their father's will -- all the way to the end. She thought people would be interested in the disposition of every item of a royal household."
Back home in Berkeley, the collaborators at Central Works have gone totally the other way with Lear in their new comedy Every Inch a King -- the title of which is a line from the bard's original text. Instead of detailing every stick of furniture and every head of cattle, Central Works has given Shakespeare's tragedy the same treatment it gave his Taming of the Shrew -- stripping it down to its pivotal characters and themes, chucking the ornamentation, and re-envisioning it in an entirely new and provocative form through an intense workshop process.
Every Inch is a lot like Lear, except that the women are kind, nobody goes insane, it ends well, and nobody, strictly speaking, gets his or her eyes put out. But this is Lear without tears, the Bard without the body count, a contemporary take on some of the questions that underlie Lear. Questions such as what are the bounds of filial duty, and when are we no longer competent to make decisions for ourselves? What are families supposed to do when a parent is incapacitated -- especially if there's no love lost for him or her? And no less important, how do we know when someone's intentions are honorable?
Just in case, like me, you tend to get King Lear and Macbeth mixed up (both are tragedies, both sport plenty of evil-minded women, it's raining awfully hard, etc.), here's the basic premise. Lear, king of Britain, is getting a little derailed in his old age. When he decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters as dowry, he bases who gets what on how much they claim to love him. The first two, Goneril and Regan, fall over themselves protesting their affection, but Cordelia, the youngest, isn't the sort to get mushy on demand. In a fit of rage, he disowns her, banishes the earl who stands up for her, and then proceeds to cede his authority to Goneril and Regan. Those two daughters are bad to the bone. As soon as they have their lands in hand, they start scheming -- against their dad, against each other, and against their saintly sister -- who has gone penniless into marriage with the noble king of France.
There's another thread to the story -- about Edmund the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, who's pretty devious himself -- but that has minimal bearing on Central Works' play, other than the questionable accountant named Ed. While eventually the misled fathers see the light -- one only figuratively -- and the evildoers get what's coming to them, the dead bodies are so thick on the ground that the remaining characters can barely move without tracking blood everywhere.
Every Inch is gentle by comparison, but no less sharp in its examination of family dynamics. Set in modern-day SoCal, it's the story of sisters Gwen, Rae, and Leah, and their father Reggie Leroy, the king of rubber stamps. Gwen calls her sisters home after their father has a stroke that leaves him speechless and barely competent. They come, grudgingly, but disagree with Gwen's assessment that all three should be taking care of the cantankerous old man, who apparently drove off their beloved mother when they were little. Over the course of 24 hours, the three will grow frustrated with their father and each other -- frustration that leads each to take matters in her own hands.
Unlike her namesake Goneril, eldest sister Gwen (Sandra Schlechter) is the long-suffering good girl of the trio, the unmarried schoolteacher who has chosen to stay in the run-down house to look after the demanding Reggie. Juggling medicines ("I have it all written down," she insists when her sisters look askance at the smorgasbord of pill bottles) and her schedule, Gwen has taken her father out of the hospital because she thinks he's better off at home. Schlechter is ultra-convincing as the sweet, story-hour type, a distaff Mr. Rogers.
Actress Claudia Rosa is middle sister Rae, a big-city type who's clearly hiding something more than her desire to sell her father's house and scrubby acreage to the Disney corporation. As tightly wound as her businesslike chignon, Rae hasn't got the time to learn the difference between her father's stool softeners and antidepressants, and Rosa plays her as bitter, impatient, and woundingly witty.
Finally there's the caboose, Leah. As envisioned by Shakespeare, Cordelia's voice was "soft, gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman." Barefoot, caftan-clad Leah (Rica Anderson) is indeed soft and gentle -- but only up to a point, after which she's noisy, self-absorbed, and a little spoiled (witness the scene where she encounters her first bedpan). She's also deep into Native-American mysticism, presenting her sisters with ritual gifts of vegetables and leaving them bemused with her "peapod dance," an over-the-top, stamping, hissing dance of death. (Gwen to Leah: "I just don't think your dancing could kill anyone.")
Other than bits of the ending, which I found rather pat, this is a well-conceived and well-written play. But the greatest strength of the production is the actresses. These women are too damn funny, whether they're channeling their father's bile (Reggie's statement that "there's an open grave between a woman's legs" closely mirrors Lear's speech about women: "Down from the waist they are Centaurs/ Though women all above/But to the girdle do the gods inherit/Beneath is all the fiends'/There's hell, there's darkness, there's the sulphurous pit"), arguing over the disposition of the house, or trying to get used to Leah's new name ("I am Kitchitoomaha now," she tells Rae, who is having none of her sister's nonsense). Ably directed by Jan Zvaifler, these women set Shakespeare's original, rather one-sided vision of vicious daughters on its ear by presenting us with three sisters who at heart really love their difficult father, and are trying to make the best choices for him as well as for themselves.
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