LearCal Shakes, Amphitheater Bruns, until October 2
This world premiere is a poetic production that mirrors Shakespeare’s story, but reinvents it with a modern 21st century verse vocabulary that audiences will more easily understand.
On a recent evening, Marcus Gardley’s remarkable modernization of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear at Cal Shakes shone as brightly as his bright two-story set of a San Francisco home under the night sky of Orinda.
Scroll down to read our interview with award-winning Lear writer Marcus Gardley, who says writing plays was the last thing on his mind while at Castlemont High in Oakland .
Most of the action in the play involves the machinations of Lear’s two deceitful daughters, Lear’s disillusionment with them, and his emerging mental illness. Subplots involve the Earl of Gloucester (excellent Michael J. Asberry) and his illegitimate son, Edmund (terribly scheming Jomar Tagatac). Unhappy with his status as a bastard, Edmund sneakily attempts to displace his older brother and rightful heir, Edgar (the efficient Dane Troy). Ultimately, there is a battle between the three daughters and their husbands for the domain of Lear – but few live to see the kingdom resolved and restored.
Gardley added new modernizing touches to Shakespeare’s version. Shakespeare’s fool is now comics. Convincingly played by Sam Jackson, the Comic makes some sardonic riffs on the political scene. A new character, the Black Queen (the formidable Velina Brown), dressed in a long white dress, sings moving numbers accompanied by a small jazz band (great music by Marcus Shelby). Poor Tom (Edgar in disguise) now has the attributes of an Uncle Tom.
This production of Lear has a bittersweet personal aspect as it is the latest show from Cal Shakes artistic director Eric Ting. After seven years of inspired creativity, Ting leaves to join his family in New York. Lear offered Ting a second chance to collaborate with Gardley after the 2017 super success dark odyssey.
In some ways (dare I say it!) Gardley’s Lear improve the bard King Lear for modern audiences. Although a bit too long for me (this is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays), Lear it’s great theater and total fun.
Lear runs at Cal Shakes’ Bruns Amphitheater through October 2, 2022. The performance lasts approximately three hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Cal Shakes advises audiences to dress warmly in layers as the temperature can drop during evening performances. There is a free shuttle from Orinda BART. Single tickets range from $35 to $70 (subject to change). Evenings at 7.30 p.m., Sunday matinees at 4 p.m.; select Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Proof of vaccination (or recent negative test) is required for admission. Masking is encouraged but not required in the outdoor amphitheater. For more information, extended dates and tickets, visit Cal Shakes website, or call 510-548-9666.
Marcus Gardley Says Let Your Hair Down, “Make Some Noise” When You See “Lear”
Marcus Gardley, who was born and raised in Oakland, is an acclaimed poet, playwright, screenwriter and television writer. It won the 2022 WGA Award for Best Adapted Long Series for MAID (Netflix). His game The house that won’t last had his world premiere with Berkeley Rep in January 2014 and won the 2019 Obie Award. His game, dark odysseywas produced by Cal Shakes in 2017. On television, he has written for several series, including Boots Riley’s i am a virgin (Amazon), The Chi (Show time), Foundation (Apple), and City Tales (Netflix). His feature film adaptation of The purple color the musical hits theaters in December 2023, and Warner Brothers just picked up its Marvin Gaye biopic.
Gardley told us about Lear to Cal Shakes, his work in television and film, his childhood in Oakland and how he became a writer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Have you been to the Bay Area for rehearsals for “Lear”?
Yes, I went back and forth. I have lived in Los Angeles for about five years. I work in television now, so I have to live here. But I miss Oakland, my favorite city in the world.
What made you want to set ‘Lear’ in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the 1960s?
I wanted this production to be close to my home. Most of what I write takes place in the Bay Area. King Lear resonated with the idea of homelessness and memory loss. In the play, Lear has memory problems. I always talk about what we as a community forget. Generations pass on stories and legacies in our community. What is kept in family and community are major themes in this production of King Lear.
Did you know people who lived in the Fillmore district during this redevelopment?
Yes, my great-grandmother did. Growing up, she instilled in me the importance of buying a home in the Bay Area – something to cling to, something to be proud of. In Oakland, where I grew up, it was a big thing that you inherited the house your family lived in. Unfortunately, we have seen the neighborhood decline as these children did not take care of the houses like their parents did. It really stuck with me, and I wanted to write about it in this piece.
Why do you think they gave up their legacy?
The neighborhood was infected with drugs and turned violent. So some moved. They didn’t have the same values as their parents and didn’t really understand the importance of keeping those homes, so they would lose them. Some of them have not paid their taxes. Others let them fall into ruin.
How did your version of “King Lear” start?
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned writers to make a modern translation of each Shakespeare play. My first version was King Lear located in Brittany. Then Cal Shakes called me; they loved the play. They wanted me to add my personal touch. I told them I’d like to put it in the Bay Area, and I’ve been obsessed with the Fillmore district since my grandmother passed away. So much about the play coincided with the Fillmore as it was redeveloped and dismantled by the highways. Such a rich history there.
Can you tell me about the music in Lear?
It was an exciting adventure, a happy accident. I love music and I love Marcus Shelby. I have worked with him before. I knew I wanted jazz because in the 1960s the Fillmore District was called the Harlem of the West. We didn’t know how the jazz would sound against the very poetic language, but it was a great marriage.
How much of Shakespeare’s original plot about King Lear do you keep?
I kept everything. There’s a nice marriage between Fillmore’s story and Lear’s story without changing the plot. It fits like a puzzle piece. It just takes place in a more specific area. The characters are more like people you’ve known from the 1960s.
How were you as a student at Castlemont High in Oakland?
I was very shy, a bit lonely and obsessed with books. I had several friends but I kept to myself. I was very involved in my father’s church. I had a protected life. I left school, went to church and spent most of the week there. I had a good time. I loved my high school years and I loved Oakland. If you asked me then, writing plays was the last thing on my mind. I intended to go into international business or pre-medicine. Life is funny. I don’t know how I landed here.
Anything else you would like our readers to know?
I hope that people who come to see my pieces will feel free to interact and have a common experience. There’s nothing wrong with laughing and singing, be a little loud – like a church service, as long as you can hear the actors. Let your hair down and enjoy. Lear is a celebration of language and family. Since the pandemic has caused such isolation, I hope this piece can be part of what brings people together as a community.