King Lear, ave atque vale. He had a good life with us, and I think he will sleep well. The new production, Survival, is pretty much written, at least in first draft, and is beginning to take shape in rehearsal. A solo clown piece, and it’s slowly growing on me. This will be my third one-hander, as those in the biz call it.
Back in the 90’s we made a piece based on an extraordinary book of poetry (Beside Herself: Pocahontas to Patty Hearst, by Pamela White Hadas)—women brought to life from history and fiction by a master poet. I loved performing it. Two hours, twelve characters, a one-woman steeplechase.
And in 2006 we did Dream House, my clowning baptism and an edgy outing of the various people who live in my own noggin. I revealed my alters, made them funny, and even got naked on stage. We toured it, 26 performances in California, and I miss it.
Seven sisters: Liz, Bessie, Beth, Bette, Liza, Lizzie—and Bozo. The one with the red nose, the incompetent one with the successful sisters who all think she’s a doofus. Well, Bozo’s coming back, this time with all the answers.
A lot’s happened since 2006. We survived W’s agitated wash cycle, thought we’d get rinsed clean by O, and then got into a frantic spin cycle with T, you know, the kind where the jeans are all over on one side and the machine just goes whap-whap-whap and starts walking across the floor.
So now I’m Lou, a West County woman in her late 70’s, probably baggy pants and an Army jacket and a beat-up pickup truck. The news is overstuffed with the wildest assortment of ways we humans could screw the pooch, and when Lou’s wiring is about to short out just thinking about it, she puts on the red nose and channels Bozo.
I read the news too much and don’t talk a lot about it, just try to keep it from wadding up inside. So Lou feels good to me, because she does talk about it, to her relatives and to friends in the bar and the supermarket, and to the audience. And whenever Bozo gets too loopy with her gurus and experts and pundits, good ol’ Lou yanks off the nose and tries to find a balance. Sure feels familiar.
After 2.5 years in repertory, with 64 performances in 13 states, our King Lear is put to rest, except for the DVD ($16.95 plus shipping, available thru our website). DVDs are one more human improvisation to give us the illusion of immortality, an illusion we live by.
As for the living, breathing, sweating stage performance itself, it’s dead as earth, as Lear would say. Several friends have asked, “How does that feel?” I’m hard pressed to know.
On the one hand, great relief. The preparations, even when it’s been in rep for so long, are all-consuming, and the anxiety that pervades every one of the hundred minutes of the show: a line glitch, a mistake in the puppet hand-offs, a light/sound cue out of synch, and you’re in sudden free-fall. Every mistake that could be made we’ve made. New ones rushed nightly onto the stage, and yet it seemed we managed to transcend our goofs. I remember a juggling routine of the Flying Karamazovs that consisted of the trio dropping objects right and left (intentionally), with brilliant recoveries, a miraculous bouquet of disaster. I wondered how many times they flubbed their flubs.
And then those one-night stands, where we drove to the venue, unloaded, did the three-hour setup, rushed to get into costume & makeup, sweated for an hour forty minutes, then, after talking with audience, took an hour and a half striking and loading out the set, finding our lodging and flopping down flat till we drove out the next morning. At our age, it wearies.
What sustains is the response of our patrons and above all the privilege of playing these scenes, speaking the words, giving life to the characters—every performance a safari of discovery, yielding some new artifact of insight. The play provokes you to it. It reminds me of the bull-riding event at a rodeo: you try to stay on for eight seconds, and then you’re judged by your style, but nobody ever masters the bull. Nor do riders want a wimpy bull: you gain points for riding the unrideable, for a few seconds of your life.
All in all, we wanted to finish our encounter with Lear at its peak, not when it would finally be hobbling on its knees. And we did. Onward.