In King Lear, it's the king who's supposed to go mad. After hearing their plans, however, some may wonder if it's the folks at California Institute of the Arts who've gone a bit crazy. To inaugurate its Center for New Theater, the Cal Arts school of theatre is attempting an audacious re-imagining of Shakespeare's tragedy, opening June 14. The goals: redefining not just one of the world's great plays but the centuries-old conventions of play-going.
Nothing about this project is simple or safe, which is how director Travis Preston wants it. Although he admires its intellectual complexity, he long resisted staging King Lear because he thought the practice of casting famous aging actors in the title role sentimentalized a work that should be stark and disquieting. Then he came up with the idea of using women in all the parts, which would sidestep the emotional baggage and help him "smash up against the text" thematically.
Preston also envisioned staging the piece in ways that that would force the audience to confront the play ("This is about conflict, after all") and not just sit and watch. In Cal Arts's production, spectators will literally follow the action, moving from scene to scene through an abandoned brewery near downtown Los Angeles. (And when they sir, the sears--on secret air cushions--will take some surprising turns.) From the moment they pass through the brewery doors, spectators will enter a "disorienting and different world," Preston says. He and designer Chris Barreca have created a dark wonderland of visual puns and graphic images, emphasizing the size and atmospherics of the turn-of-the-century building that was once Thomas Edison's West Coast plant. Video, in the guise of projections, live feeds and roving cameras, will be what Preston calls the "indispensable tool" that extends the performance space by several dimensions.
Such emphasis on design can sometimes overwhelm stortelling. Preston insists, however, that the play's dramatic power will be preserved by a cast led by Fran Bennett, head of the Cal Arts acting program, as well as guest artists Joan MacIntosh (Gloucester), Elina Lowensohn (Fool), Mary Lou Rosato (Kent) and Marissa Chibas (Edgar). Students and alumni will round out a company of up to 50.
The actors will need both physical and mental dexterity. They will climb scaffolding and stride along a 55-foot-long narrow platform; one woman will be strapped to a wheel while it's spinning. Sometimes they will play their roles, sometimes they will play outside of them. "Performers take many positions vis-a-vis their characters, in a sense critiquing them from time to time," Preston explains. They also may lip-sync out of sync, or hear their voices echoing over a dozen speakers placed around the mammoth main space. "This is by far the most difficult thing I've done," says Bennett (something other Lears have said). "This is going to be an experience."
Preston hopes the audience will feel the same way. As the play opens, they will encounter Edmund in a Plexiglass box, surrounded by surveillance cameras with video monitors displaying his life signs. Once seated, they will survey a dreary expanse dotted with oil derricks, intended to represent a capitalist landscape on the brink of ruin. After an exchange between Kent and Gloucester, they will meet Lear. (Bennett's charismatic voice is crucial to carrying off this scene, because she …