KING LEAR (Bristol Riverside): Mommy issues

king lear brt

Sketch by costume designer Lisa Zinni for Bedlam’s KING LEAR at Bristol Riverside Theatre.

Bedlam’s King Lear currently up at Bristol Riverside Theatre will not be for everyone. It certainly wasn’t for much of the audience there on opening night, or those that were in my carpool to the Northeast suburb. In many ways, the show does not feel complete, or cohesive. In others, it doesn’t even feel like >King Lear. For those that are curious about bold adaptation, or the process of creating a new work, this production offers a rare opportunity to see Lear as you will likely never see again.

In less than 10 years, Bedlam has quickly become one of the hottest theater upstarts in New York City. Their fresh and stripped down revivals of old classics have taken on the works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Chekov, and Miller to much critical success. How lucky (and slightly strange) that Bristol Riverside Theatre should receive the premiere of their King Lear 

To say that this Lear is streamlined, is a bit of an understatement; 6 actors play 14 characters (cut from 25 in the original text). They have also cut the run-time in half: down to about an hour and thirty five minutes with no intermission. Director Eric Tucker and his company (including dramaturg Musa Gurnis) accomplish this by only including scenes that feature King Lear. The result is (as intended) a fractured one. Characters enter on stage without much in the way of introduction or back story. Characters are physically maimed or killed offstage sans explanation. While there is a slightly helpful summary in the program, if you don’t know King Lear front to back it is likely you will be confused. This isn’t helped by Bedlam’s minimalist aesthetic; not much of a fuss is made about costumes. Is that Gonerill on stage right now? Or is it Gloucester? (They’re both played by the excellent Lisa Birnbaum). Eventually, I found myself willing to let go of those worries and sort of succumb into the confusion. In this way we start to experience the world as Lear might (slowly losing their sense of reality).

In the gigantic task of playing King Lear, Zuzanna Szadkowski is certainly a non-traditional choice. She is conservatively about half the age you’d expect someone to be to play Lear. Outside that, while Tucker keeps Lear’s pronouns and titles masculine (he/him/father/king), it is very clear to the audience that this Lear is a woman, a mother, a queen. Szadkowski starts her performance playing a the aged king with an energy best described as akin to Mama Rose.

Zuzanna Szadkowski as King Lear.

Turning Lear from a narcissistic, out-of touch father to a narcissistic, out-of-touch mother is a fascinating move. We find selfish dads banal, but selfish mothers inexcusable. Here then it seems to make sense that we sympathize with Gonerill as she kicks Lear out for turning the daughter’s home into a royal frat house. Likewise, we see Regan (Eliza Fitchter) tremble before her unstable mother as she finally says “you need to get out.”  Characters who are normally characterized as wicked step-sister here seem as if they are just trying to get on with their lives without their crazy parent’s entourage puking all over the place.

As the play develops, we see Lear descend further into madness. This leads to some chaotic staging that seemed almost shockingly uncontrolled. As Lear wanders about looking less and less like the faux-glamorous matriarch, we feel first pity for Lear, then despair.  She begins to look back at the moment that started this horrible chain of events. “Nothing comes from nothing,” Lear says to Cordelia after her daughter refuses to shower her parent in praise. It turns out there are things that are much worse than nothing.

Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street Bristol, PA 19007. January 28- February 16, 2020. https://www.brtstage.org/main-stage/king-lear/

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About the author

Joshua Herren

Josh Herren is a writer and third-grade teacher living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Josh has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated summa cum laude in history (American concentration) and art history, with a minor in gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. His thesis "Furious Acts: AIDS and the Art(s) of Activism, 1985–1993" won the Rose Award for Outstanding Thesis. Josh is passionate about education, theater, and convincing others that Philadelphia is the greatest city on earth.