Shakespeare may have created some of the most memorable female characters of all time, but acting in Elizabethan England was strictly a male profession. Probably due to the aesthetic limitations inherent in the convention of having boys play women, these roles were kept relatively small (even central heroines like Rosalind and Viola speak less than some of the men in their own plays). The end result is that a contemporary actress who longs to speak Shakespeare’s lines on stage almost always ends up with far fewer of them than her male counterparts.
The Fern Theatre’s interesting new production of Lear, currently running at 368 Ponce through May 29, redresses some of that imbalance by casting all of the roles — from Lear, Gloucester and Kent to Edgar, Edmund and the fool — with female actresses.
Veteran Atlanta actress Joanna Daniel makes a compelling Lear, conveying aspects of Lear’s transformation from the cheerful hubris of the opening scene to the dark recesses of madness and tragedy that unfold in the later acts. The play can take on some curious new resonance with the central character as a female queen, as when Lear (as a mother now) curses the progeny and reproductivity of her daughter Goneril. Under the skillful direction of Chris Rushing, the violence that unfolds after Lear’s tragic error develops with machine gun-fire rapidity and a dreadful inevitability. The cast wears appropriately primitive Celtic costumes, matching the play’s setting and something of its primal, tribal, warrish events and brutal outlook.
Lear famously faces some terrible weather, but this production is performed — as it likely was in Shakespeare’s time — outdoors under beautiful, early summer skies. The stark, violent action of the play seems to sit strangely well in the lovely setting, a multi-level outdoor courtyard stage surrounded by lush plants behind a former home on Ponce. The thunder is provided by an off-stage but visible sheet of metal, which like the drums and tambourines used to create incidental music and noise, has a fittingly brutalistic edge; it’s somehow more ominous than the most up-to-date technological theatrical effects.
The small cast of eight does a lot of doubling in taking all the roles (Shakespeare could only use male actors, but they were available to him in numbers that can be hard to match for small, contemporary theaters today). This works well in some instances — having the same actress play Cordelia and the fool seems a resonant, almost even a natural, choice in this framework — but it also creates challenges.
Actresses seem to rush off stage and then rush back on as someone else. Even those familiar with the play might be startled for a moment when they see the actress who plays good, faithful Kent return to the stage to lead Lear and Cordelia off to prison as a guard. Those encountering the work for the first time could easily be confused, something which may be compounded by the several instances of actual disguise-wearing and role-playing that take place within the action of the play itself. Some of the characters become female (Lear is now a queen), others stay male, which, though I didn’t have a problem following, could easily become a conceptual stumbling block for some.
The supporting performances can be uneven, but the show held my rapt attention, which is not always the case with Shakespeare productions. Ultimately, I think the stylistic shift of having an all-female cast highlights in an exciting way a certain level of Shakespeare’s self-conscious theatricality and artificiality — we are observers at several conceptual removes from the imagined and recreated action, we never forget that — but it also somehow brings the show to vivid life and gives it a sense of real immediacy.
According to the stage direction at the end of the play, King Lear enters holding the dead Cordelia, one of the most famously devastating, and among the most infamously thorny, Shakespearean tableaux to bring to the stage (an actor experienced enough to play Lear still needs the strength to carry the body of Cordelia on stage night after night). It’s not recreated here and that final image is, predictably, a significant lack. But otherwise the production is, in spite of its small faults, electrically alive. The brutal culminating events have seldom felt so uncomfortably, devastatingly close.