Shakespeare's Storms at the Buntport Theater reminds me of off-off-Broadway performances in New York City during the '60s. It has the same funky, improvisational feel.
Audience members -- on the night I attended, there were about fifteen of us -- sit in three rows in front of a wedge-shaped, stepped wooden contraption with a video screen at its center. The screen is topped by a box fronted with red gel. A large face on the video is addressing us, speaking the famous lines in which King Lear describes his intention of abdicating and dividing his kingdom among his three daughters. The character unfolds a map of the world. The daughters are represented by a cigarette, a drinking glass and a flower. Meanwhile, the actor whose face we see onscreen walks back and forth in the flesh, packing a suitcase and occasionally remonstrating with himself or someone unseen. Eventually we realize that the invisible person is Kent, banished by Lear for speaking the truth. Though when Kent speaks, the invisible participant is Lear.
This is Shakespeare's King Lear, as performed by Thaddeus Phillips of Lucidity Suitcase. Lear will soon meet his storm on the heath. The second storm, which we'll encounter after the intermission, is the one conjured up by Prospero in The Tempest. Phillips's spatial contrivances, use of objects and sheer energy boggle the mind. Though he leaves the brothers Edgar and Edmund out of King Lear (well, Edgar makes a kind of appearance), as well as the battle scenes and some plotting, he speaks all the rest of the lines, using various objects to represent specific characters. The Fool is a Javanese puppet with a sad, ferocious grin and an astonishing way of chattering his teeth; Goneril and Regan are represented by pairs of shoes (yeah, in addition to the cigarette and glass), which at one point leads to Phillips's hobbling around the stage wearing one red high heel and one flat green shoe; Lear's retinue consists of a suitcase full of toy soldiers, with Phillips uttering a rising-falling "owaaah" sound every time it's opened; Gloucester is a can of shaving cream.
Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan Street, Denver
Through November 11, 720-946-1388, buntport.com
We've all seen four-year-olds at play, saying things like, "And then the mousie hit the old man on the head with a...a...aardvark, but the aardvark turned into a sandwich..." and picking up various objects to illustrate their stories. Watching Phillips perform is a bit like that, except for the knowledge and intelligence that inform his actions.
Free from the weight of the monarchy, Lear plays golf to the strains of "Sentimental Journey," but eventually -- as we knew he would -- he finds himself on the moors, exposed to fierce weather and even fiercer inner torments. Entertaining as all this is, we begin to wonder, as Phillips leaps from place to place, raises and lowers trapdoors and tosses his golf clubs about, whether this production will contribute anything in the way of insight to this dark and troubling story.
Oddly, and in ways that can't quite be described, it does. The words take on new shades of meaning and -- for all the humor of their deployment -- the objects, too, are eloquent. Since Cordelia's been represented as a flower, there's something touching and upsetting about the little shower of flower-tipped darts Phillips throws at the wooden stage. Lear's golf ball sees service as an egg and a stone, and it eventually stops Lear's mouth, a round white zero that represents one of the play's most haunting themes, the concept of nothing. "Nothing, my lord," is what Cordelia answers when her father asks her what she can say to prove her love. He responds grimly: "Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again." Later, stripped of his power and retinue, deprived of all worldly comforts, he muses on precisely what a man needs in order to remain human, and he begins to understand the soul-destroying poverty in which many of his erstwhile subjects live.
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There's a moment in which Phillips's production comes into peculiar consonance with Shakespeare's original: In the play, Lear, the Fool and Poor Tom create a mock court and set up objects to stand in for their absent tormenters. So there's a kind of shadow joke present when Phillips cries to the imaginary Goneril, who's already been represented by green shoes and a cigarette: "I took you for a joint stool."
The second part of the show was less successful than the first. It seems that the tale of Prospero's island is meant to provide some sense of resurrection, but Phillips's intention wasn't clear. The performance remained inventive, with a wading pool standing in for the ocean, a wet shirt for Gonzalo, a doll for Miranda, but this time we were less amazed. There were a couple of glitches on the night I attended, and it's possible that Phillips lost his concentration. Also the theater space was very cold, and watching the actor perform soaking wet and stripped to the waist made us shiver for him. Still, there were some wonderful moments here, too, in particular the scene in which Prospero gave up his magic.
This is experimentation in the best sense, forsaking the expected, pushing past boundaries and attempting to reinvent theater from the bottom up, very much like the experiments of the '60s. But where those were characterized by a barely-held-in-check contempt for the audience, Phillips invites us into his world with openness, vulnerability and humor.