When William Shakespeare wrote King Lear (it appeared at the Royal Court in 1606, among his first tragedies) he was obsessed with sight, what it means to see, and the ways that faculty deceives and reveals. That's arguably the dominant theme in his tale about an imperious but feeble king who is so blinkered by what he believes is his patriarchal right to adulation that he delivers his kingdom to two villainous daughters and banishes the one who speaks truthfully. Lear winds up a blind, exiled beggar, the "vile jellies" in his face squeezed out but his mind and heart open to what he has done to his only loving child. Critics argue over whether there is redemption in Lear's fate, or whether the play simply exploits one of the bleakest, blackest views of humanity in Shakespearean literature--more evidence, perhaps, that we see what we expect to find, and our lives are irrevocably shaped by those expectations.
Writer-performer Fred Curchack catches his own reflection when he peers into the crystalline ripples of the Elizabethan playwright's language. He is, in that respect, both more honest than many artists who insist they drink their inspiration from some shared cosmic tank of creative energy, and emblematic of an era in which the memoir has become a pre-eminent artistic form. In Lear's Shadow, Curchack's latest work, there is a drama of backstage egotism and lunatic tragedy that parallels King Lear, and we wonder whether Curchack has once again fused some black mark on his own spiritual résumé with the high-flown sorrow of the world stage. I don't know if any of this is autobiographical, and I won't ask, because in the end, the show stands or falls on how well it fulfills its own ambitions. And stand and fall it does, repeatedly, until Curchack, co-star/co-creator Shannon Kearns, and the audience are dizzy from hitting the floor and leaping back up. We're sore and giddy at the same time; all this playfulness is reckless, and no one will escape without a few bruises.
Lear's Shadow is more than a play-within-a play. It becomes a Chinese box of competing identities that either confirm or deny the truth of Shakespeare's dialogue as Curchack and Kearns speak lines from King Lear. What is at first exhilarating--the link between classical and contemporary roles and rivalries--becomes over the course of the show redundant. The modern setup features a white-haired, cigar-smoking retired actor named Skully (Curchack) overseen by his young nurse Angie (Kearns), whose disingenuous baby-doll voice suggests she knows more than she wants him to know.
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He is watching a taped rehearsal of a King Lear production from his dark-haired virile days, when he co-starred with a female prodigy named Vicki (Kearns) who admits, during rehearsals, that she has become pregnant from their offstage romance. All this transpires as part of Skully's addled recollection, so we are immediately clued in to the haphazard nature of the relationships shown. As Lear bequeaths his estate so he can "crawl, unburdened, toward death" to daughters Goneril (Kearns) and Regan (Curchack), while banishing the silently adoring Cordelia (Kearns), we recognize all of this family intrigue as the literary lights that cast long shadows when Skully and Vicki--in a family way themselves--step in front of them.
Curchack lunges periodically for unbound script pages and reads them as though in rehearsal (he good-naturedly promises, in an informal introduction to the show, to be off-book by the second and final weekend, although it should be noted that Kearns, who shoulders only a bit less of the textual burden, was not similarly chained to the script). He refers to his crutch as part of the "tackiness" that's a Curchackian aesthetic, something folks who have seen his previous shows will recognize. True to his own defensive self-deprecations, he's an artist who has learned only the most rudimentary of video shooting and editing skills to realize his inter-media ambitions. The crudely curled-up technical edges, combined with the man's naked thirst to transform his shadow side into bruising-and-bawling shadow puppetry, succinctly parallel the most celebrated movies coming out of Sundance right now. Between the fictionalized but painful intimacy of Chuck & Buck and the fantastically true documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the most febrile stories are being told with arrested technical abilities. In this sense, if you stretch across pop cultural categories the way Curchack loves to, he seems more au courant than he probably ever has before.
And yet, even with a great deal more intellectual accomplishment than the young-pup cinematic authors of these pieces, he treads with grasping toes a taut line of our common sinfulness that's stretched over the pit of his own particular insecurity, the compulsion to have us be entertained by his confessions. It's not that Curchack is more neurotic or haunted or troubled or even self-aggrandizing about his personal crises than the rest of us; it's just that he sometimes mistakes volume for verity, individual bombast with theatrical beatitude. For a show that clocks in at an hour and 20 minutes with no intermission (at least, in this, its toddler incarnation), Lear's Shadow contains altogether too much shouting, bellowing, and screaming, most of it by Curchack. He created the wonderfully grotesque masks and puppet heads for the show, but while onstage seems to regard their collective rictus of joy and sorrow as handicaps to be overcome with clamoring vocal thunderstorms. Shannon Kearns proves otherwise with her crisp and cruel depiction of Lear's Fool. Whether in a mask or hiding with black-wrapped head behind a puppet face, she accurately presents him as perhaps the most merciless conscience of all Shakespeare's tragic heroes (hell, let me just presumptuously call him a critic), and we surmise it originates from inside one mind because of the jester's continued insistence that his king is the real fool. He declares that the voluntarily dethroned Lear has only the title "fool" to cling to now, "the one you were born with," because he has given away all his other titles. Kearns' voice is carefully measured, acid and mocking, her feet playfully intercrossing as she stalks the paranoid Lear, and her reservation makes Curchack's deranged clown cranium bobbing at her breast level all the more nightmarish. "Thou shouldst not have been old till thou had been wise," Kearns cackles, and the divided psyche of the moment, its royal schizophrenia, chills us with the leering, bug-eyed surrogate face she sports like a gaudy necklace.
Lear's Shadow is, by the admission of both concerned, very much a work in progress, a virgin birth with the requisite naïve enthusiasm feeding it like a still-attached umbilical cord. Although, I should qualify, Fred Curchack wanted to debut the piece late this year in Dallas after he tested it at the Cinnabar Theatre in California, his usual trusted dock of a maiden voyage. But he could confirm only these two August weeks at a Dallas theater for performance, so we get--for better and for worse--the world premiere. The premature display is far from disastrous, but it does contain a good 15 minutes of excisable squabbling as the old man and the nurse, the young actor and his co-star/lover bicker over who is alive and who is dead, who is dreaming and who is awake, back and forth and back again between video projection and live characterization. This feels like that Shakespearean line about "the play of all things" recorded on an LP, with the record player's needle stuck in some tautological scratch, repeating the same simple complexity till it becomes simply aggravating.