Dreamwell – This past weekend I attended the opening of Dreamwell’s Lear’s Daughters, directed by Gerry Roe. Conceived by poet Elaine Feinstein, Lear’s Daughters is an extension/adaptation of King Lear, collaboratively penned by London’s Women’s Theatre Group in the late 1980’s.
Not having seen a performance or adaptation of King Lear in at least eight years—unless you count a showing of Kirosawa’s Ran—I kicked myself all the way to theatre for not taking the time to dust off my Shakespeare anthology and brush up a
bit. In fact, my Riverside Shakespeare currently serves as an ergonomic prop for the monitor I am gazing at as I write this review. It does get more than one gander a year, but not this hectic week. I was sure I had blown my chance to grasp the real-time nuances of Lear’s Daughters. Not so, it turned out.
At least half of all contemporary Shakespeare stagings I have seen—from Broadway to church basement—have started with a “What if?” What if Hamlet is set on Mars? What if Romeo and Juliet is about two opposing rap posses on the streets of L.A.? What if Regan, Goneril and Cordelia are Paris, Britney and Lindsay? (Please, no one get any ideas about that last one).
Adaptations, on the other hand, bifurcate into “What If’s?” and “Why’s?” Lear’s Daughters seems to have stemmed from a “Why?” Why are Lear’s two eldest daughters so cold, manipulative and disingenuous? Why is Cordelia the favorite? Where’s the Queen and what influence did she have on the girls? What made them who they are? Prior knowledge of King Lear did provide critical fodder, but I didn’t sense I was missing any crucial “Easter Eggs” that would have been clarified by a more recent review of King Lear. All of this is to say that Lear’s Daughters stands quite nicely on its own and the ability to draw minute correlations between Lear’s Daughters and text of King Lear is not a prerequisite to enjoying this show.
Lear’s Daughters is an episodic affair. The Fool (Vicki Krajewski) marks each chapter with a pun-filled introduction and a stylized nameplate displayed on easel at the corner of the proscenium. Unlike Lear, where plot is “king,” Daughters is a character study. The princesses introduce themselves with musings on their respective artistic inclinations. Regan (Emily Dokken) is a carver who “creates beauty from distortion.” Goneril (Becca Robinson) is a painter. Cordelia (Elisabeth Ross) has a love for words. The princesses are “shut in,” overlooking the kingdom and countryside, entertained by an androgynous Fool and raised by “two mothers…one paying, one paid.” The “one paid” is a caring Nurse (Deone Peterson) who processes happenings through the filter of fairy tale. As she spins it, the birth of each girl was marked by a storm or a comet which, if taken to mean thwarted passions, can be perceived as figurative truth.
Of the unseen and neglectful Lear, the Nurse awe-strikes with tales of Lear’s grandeur, fueling his daughters’ idealizations. It once rained for forty days and, when he came home—as Nurse tells it—the sun came out. The girls beg for stories, but, as time wears on, the fabrications only serve to twist the knife of longing for an absent father.
As for the mother—the “one paying”—the Queen (played by the Fool) is leaked of life. Castle accountant and defective “male-child-machine” for Lear, the Queen is anxious and cold toward the princesses. When asked if their mother loves them, the Nurse replies: “when she has the time.” Her death via miscarriage is glossed over, like everything else in their lives.
Each character in Lear’s Daughters is cramped into a role, seemingly defined by Lear. Goneril assumes the accounts when the Queen dies. Regan is only worth what caliber of husband she can attract. Cordelia, the youngest and favorite, must “spin for daddy” on cue. Cordelia remarks how she has two voices—that of daddy’s girl and a dormant yet formidable voice within. Even the Nurse gave up her own child to feed the Queen’s children and remarks, when “let go” from her position, that Lear gets his use of people and casts them aside.
The only party to recognize the inherent currency exchange—literal and figurative—that role playing affords is the Fool, who earns shiny silver pieces to do and be what the girls desire. A professed lover of money, the Fool philosophizes that money and “investment”—being taken care of—has a countable cost. Lear only wants each of them in as much as they fulfill a need, in exchange for security. They are all taken care of, but at what cost to the storms and passions they harbor?
If you are following along in your Shakespeare anthology, this is the thematic point where the “Why” bridges back to the original play. The innocence of youth and raw self esteem is world-wearied by neglect, disappointment and the absence of parental affection.
The performances in Lear’s Daughters are strong and unique. As the younger princesses, Dokken and Ross offer innocence and genuine girlishness to their roles. Dokken has a particularly difficult scene—one that strikes contemporary chords—that she handles believably. As Goneril, Robinson is striking and wears the weight of the eldest child with a sense of truth.
Peterson is a sturdy, spirited presence as the Nurse and her role as mother figure to the girls is genuine. Her scenes with the Fool are both touching and comical.
Anchoring the entire play is Krajewski’s performance as the Fool. Never missing a beat, Krajewski is agile and “on pointe,” ushering each scene with jovial urgency and a sense of play. Where there can be a tendency in less seasoned performers to barrel through the beats, Krajewski’s performance finds every syllable and gesture reduced to its finest component and mined to its physical potential. As I watched her perform, it occurred to me that that the performance of the Fool makes-or-breaks the whole show. Well, this Fool “makes it.”
At ninety minutes (with no intermission) Dreamwell’s production of Lear’s Daughters is a breezy, yet very substantive evening of theatre. I recommend it—whether-or-not you’ve read King Lear in last eight years—or ever.
Angie Toomsen has an MA in journalism from the University of Iowa and a BA in theatre from UNI. She spent nearly a decade in New York City, seeing, participating in and studying theatre. She still enjoys writing, acting and directing as time permits.