“King Lear” Redefines Virtual Theater—Streaming S.F. Shakes
Elizabeth Carter Creates A Female-Centric World
by Abby Tozer
With a woman in the title role and three bi-racial daughters vying for the throne, Director Elizabeth Carter’s “King Lear” progressively challenges Shakespeare’s roles. Animating a remote cast of 13 actors, Carter carves a new path for virtual theater, putting live actors in action in front of romantic castles and forests.
Originally planned for “an expansive outdoor stage with a collapsing cathedral of trees,” S.F. Shakespeare Festival quickly moved into a virtual world. Carter uses virtual woods, barns, and fields, superimposing actors on these natural settings. The actors are performing live from the safety of their own spaces. S.F. Shakes’ “King Lear” beautifully exemplifies how the theater can adapt to our current pandemic crisis.
Technical director Neal Ormond uses real-time editing to present a seamless on-screen collective, complete with fight scenes, prop exchanges, and even thunderstorms! Carter ushers in a new era, combining on-camera with live theater work. Carter & company bring hope to theatergoers everywhere during lockdown.
Carter’s gender-bending casting of breathtaking Jessica Powell as Lear gestures to the future. Powell undercovers feminine notes, while retaining the King’s fortitude and power. She descends gracefully into madness, from meticulously applied red lipstick at her palace to ragged hair and ripped clothes on a stormy landscape—all while on-screen rain and wind gently brush our headphones.
A female Lear adds maternal qualities in relation to her daughters—Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia. When Powell asserts, “Yet thou art my flesh,” we feel the unique power of a mother’s connection to her children and a deepened tragedy when this connection is lost.
As director, Carter captures new perspectives in her online “staging.” At the end of Act Two, I am glued to my screen. We look up through the eyes of the tortured Gloucester to see Cornwall, towering menacingly over us. After he bloodily and visibly rips out Gloucester’s eye, Cornwall whispers to his victim: “See’st, thou shall never!” Half our screen goes black amid blood-curdling screams.
When we pan back to the offender’s perspective, we are looking down at a bloodied, screaming, now half-blind Gloucester. We become both victim and villain, simultaneously onstage and onscreen, partaking of both Cornwall’s cruelty and Gloucester’s pain.
S.F. Shakes’ “King Lear” gives us a chance to experience an evolving ‘new normal’ for the future of live theater. And that future is bright.
This new form of production offers innovations for our swiftly changing climate. We crave the live chat box feature, on-screen special effects, current social context, and a female-identifying figurehead. SF Shakes is laying the groundwork for what will be our new, and enlightened streaming theater experience. Try their Free Shakespeare at Home—and see for yourself.
“King Lear” by William Shakespeare, directed by Elizabeth Carter, at the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival—Saturdays at 7 PM, Sundays & Labor Day Monday at 4 PM—to Sunday, September 27, 2020—Streaming at: sfshakes.org
Cast: Jessica Powell, Phil Lowery, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, Melissa Ortiz, Diana Lauren Jones, Cassidy Brown, Ron Chapman, Yohana Ansari-Thomas, David Everett Moore, Gabriella Grier, Evan Lucero, Viv Helvajian, and Tessa Nesbet.
Banner photo: Diana Lauren Jones, Jessica Powell, Ron Chapman, Yohana Ansari-Thomas.