Strip away the poetry and the intrigue of the subplots, and "King Lear" is a sad story about a man trying to retire and dispose of his estate.
As Baby Boomers age, this ritual will play out over and over -- not so much in terms of kingdoms divided but in the reality of who gets the family armoire and who is left with nothing more than a lawnmower.
She She Pop & Their Fathers, a German collective, puts the Lear story under a bare bulb in Walker Art Center's Out There series. The performers have brought along their real-life fathers, and together they deconstruct Lear through a meta-theatrical conceit titled "Testament." Scenes are read, commentary added, arguments are had over Lear's purpose, and contemporary realities are related to the text. The old gents are not actors, but they carry a confident sense of their own accomplishments in life.
For example, Goneril and Regan talk about the difficulty of taking Lear and his accumulated armies and staff into their homes. She She Pop's Lisa Lucassen breaks that down, showing through drawings and black magnetic blocks how her father's bookcases would overwhelm a modest Berlin apartment. In that mundane reality, we get closer to the child's apprehension.
In a devastating moment, Fanni Halmburger recites a litany of duties a child can accept to show love for a deteriorating parent, down to cleaning up vomit and changing wet bed sheets.
In sum, this is a fascinating and disturbing piece -- at times almost frightening in its embrace of the cruel contours of geriatrics. In a simple yet brutal scene, we see children methodically undress the fathers, pull on their clothing and then assume the thrones.
The scene fits within the context of Lear's mad scene and the intentions of the King's children, but no actor raging through the storm can match the unease this act conveys. The safety net of metaphor evaporates into an uncomfortable confrontation of the vulnerability of age.
Don't despair too much, though. She She Pop infuses the show with musical ditties, such as the full cast singing "Strangers in the Night." Lisa Lucassen sings Dolly Parton's "Daddy's Working Boots" as the old dads shuffle through a little two-step. Even when the attempts at levity fall flat, such as a lip-syncing bit, we are constantly wondering what's going on in these relationships, in the heads of the performers. Other moments teeter on sentimentality, although even here the real- life dimension is an anodyne that cuts the treacle.
She She Pop is the second offering of Out There, and it fits nicely with last week's Rude Mechs performance. That group used "A Streetcar Named Desire," to carve up Method Acting's pretensions.
She She Pop's appropriation of Lear cuts closer to the bone and feels more universal. Taken together, though, these two performances illustrate the potential in opening up classic work to reveal deeper truths.
Graydon Royce 612-673-7299 On Twitter: @GraydonRoyce