October 1, 2020

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Church setting apt for Lear prequel

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/1/2020 (250 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Site-specific theatre is having a moment.

A site-specific show is created for a space beyond a traditional theatre setting, usually a found space such as an abandoned building, an empty warehouse or — in the case of Queen Leer Is Dead, a play by Jessy Arden which opened on Tuesday as a part of ShakespeareFest — a church.

For those who have never seen a site-specific show, it can be hard to describe. It’s a lawless genre, sort of the Wild West of theatre. There are no rules except the ones the company creates... ones audiences may or may not follow.

In Queen Lear Is Dead, a King Lear prequel and the only site-specific offering in the festival, the rules are as follows: you can follow any character you want but you must not explore on your own.

It’s not an incorrect format — there’s no wrong way to make any theatre, let alone site-specific theatre — but certainly one that can be confusing.

Still, nitpicky theatre-nerd complaints aside, this 65-minute work is certainly a cut above most of the site-specific work attempted in Winnipeg and definitely one of the most narratively linear, thanks to Adern’s well-crafted writing and the precise directing of Valerie Planche.

Plot is often the hardest thing to piece together in a site-specific work, owing to the nature of a roaming audience and multiple scenes occurring at the same time, but Ardern’s script carefully exposits all the information you need to understand the story, no matter which scenes you see.

Queen Lear is — as the title indicates — dead, and her three daughters, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, are hosting her funeral and waiting for the arrival of their father, King Lear (also known as Dad). We, the audience, are guests at this funeral who have come to pay our respects to the family. The church location? Very apt.

Knowledge of King Lear isn’t a prerequisite for this play, although it may help knowing a few future things to come beforehand: Cordelia is the King’s favourite daughter, but since she refuses to flatter him in the way her sisters Regan and Goneril do, she is banished and given nothing while her sisters are set to inherit all the family money and power.

It’s certainly timely subject for a story, and it also has major vibes with the hit TV series Succession: three children desperate to win their father’s love… and his money. With compelling performances by Priya Narine (Cordelia), Carmen Osahor (Goneril) and Arden herself as Regan, it’s a contemporary and relatable take on three characters who were largely neglected by Shakespeare in his writing.

The weakest part of Queen Lear Is Dead is actually in its site-specificity: while the audience trajectories are well-controlled (really, everything in this play feels slightly too controlled), the writing — several short scenes with little interplay — feels too constrained by the well-made play formula to every take advantage of the storytelling opportunities the site-specific form contains.

Nonetheless, what eventually comes through is a beautiful, brief moment of connection among three very different sisters who will all eventually meet tragic ends. While Queen Lear Is Dead’s form won’t wow you, the strong writing and stellar performances make it a funeral worth attending.

Frances.Koncan@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @franceskoncan

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