By Josh Edelson
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King of the Jungle
King Lear. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Val Hendrickson. Starring John Robb, Trish Adair, Allyson Kulavis, Cat Schaulis Thompson, Brian Linden, Jonathan Gonzalez, Jack Halton, and others. At the 450 Geary Studio, 450 Geary (at Mason), through May 31. Call 673-1172.
King Lear is set in some remote period after the Romans have abandoned England but before Christianity has taken hold; usually the stage has a few civilized trappings, like a crumbling Roman arch, and vaguely medieval clothes. But the Guerrilla Shakespeare cast of Lear looks like a tribe of Britons fresh from the woods, in animal skins and bone jewelry, with Lear himself wearing furred boots and a stag-antler crown. He seems half-wild from the moment he steps onstage, and the show focuses on primitive, sexual things all the way through. The women are almost naked; the men strip; the Fool keeps fondling his leather codpiece. Director Val Hendrickson has pared most of the stateliness away from Lear, pitching it so far toward the insane end of the scale that it starts to be funny. It's effective, mostly. John Robb's Lear gets more childish and innocent as he goes mad, and pulls humor even from his bone-chattering breakdown on the heath.
To recap the story: Lear wants to split Britain among his three daughters; in return he asks only for declarations of love. Goneril and Regan give glib speeches, but Cordelia, who loves Lear most, can't flatter him; so he banishes her to France. Soon he learns that Regan and Goneril are treacherous, that he's split his kingdom between the two loveless daughters, and he starts to go mad. In the meantime a Fool who could be Cordelia in disguise turns up, and a parallel plot shows the Earl of Gloucester struggling with the loyalties of his two sons, Edgar and Edmund. Edmund is treacherous and Edgar is innocent; when the Earl confuses them Edgar also goes mad, pretending to be Tom o' Bedlam. In this production the strongest actors play Lear, Edgar, Gloucester, and Cordelia/the Fool, so the interlude on the heath, which includes all of them, is a sustained and hypnotic piece of theater. Brian Linden stalks around the stage as Edgar, naked under a blanket, delivering his intense speech about madness while a cello evokes the storm; Allyson Kulavis delivers the Fool's rhymes in a sly needling voice, chiding the king with an affection that's a pleasure to watch; and Robb inhabits every nuance of Lear's hallucinated lines, I think even finding some new ones. In sound and image and pacing it's powerful, deep-dredging work.
But the play sprawls, and not all of it is quite so good. Intentionally or not, Garth Petal plays an annoying Edmund; and a few gender-crossed roles don't work well enough to carry any meaning. A hundred years ago critics regularly called Lear unplayable, and it probably is. But the Guerrilla cast has fun trying, and the parts they get right tend to soar.
Cabrioles, triple assembles, double-air turns that descended into tight fifth-position grand plies: In the '70s and '80s, Mikhail Baryshnikov took traditional steps higher and made them at once larger and leaner. At age 50 and working in a stripped-down idiom within modern dance, he no longer rides extremes. Now he returns his movement to an essential translucence. As part of the White Oak Dance Project's recent shows at Zellerbach Hall, Baryshnikov performed the solo Unspoken Territory. Choreographed in 1995 by Dana Reitz of Manhattan's downtown avant-garde, it's been substantially revised since. In the solo, Baryshnikov illuminates the invisible progress of the mind as it approaches self-consciousness, then the sublime.
Unspoken Territory begins in silence and grainy darkness. When the lights reveal him, Baryshnikov is taking small steps backward on a diagonal. His arms waft overhead like tree limbs rustled by a slow wind, except these limbs are mindful -- discovering themselves. Aided by the open time and space the work's quietness conveys, Baryshnikov's arms fill with inarticulable, Edenic joy.
Soon, they become entangled around his face, as if caught in a sweater: It's Baryshnikov's first moment of humor and the beginning of his self-consciousness and doubt. As his steps alternate between showy and experimental, we realize he's in front of a mirror. He moves, then stops fast, trying to catch a glimpse of himself in unconscious motion. He moves again, walks away, but leaves his gaze behind, to savor every last bit of himself. Baryshnikov offers the invisible mirror elusive snapshots of dance's past. He quotes from the Dying Swan, matches a Nijinsky photo, and samples the Mischa of Tharp's Push Comes to Shove. Baryshnikov's growing awareness and alienation take shape in the kaleidoscope of his own dance history.
Self-consciousness is frightening: When two large searchlights home in on him, Baryshnikov runs in a tightening spiral, trying to wrap himself in the safety of his skin. But later, he slides a finger along his profile -- from head's crest to Adam's apple. This melting gesture, repeated for us again and again, glows with ripened pleasure -- the fruit of self-knowledge.
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