San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's current production of "King Lear" beckoned to me since I wrote a story about it in July. The performances are being done live online to replace the Free Shakespeare in the Park that comes to Pleasanton each summer.
This year, actors perform alone in their own homes, captured on individual computers, and master techie Neal Ormond combines them on the sets as the action unfolds. I tuned in to see if, in my humble opinion, it works. Wow, does it!
Unfamiliar with "King Lear," I first looked up a synopsis. Such family dysfunction and political strife! Such blood and gore!
SF Shakes decided on "King Lear" before the pandemic began, but it turned out to be an eerily apt choice. Shakespeare composed the play in 1606 as he sheltered from a deadly plague ravaging London. Plus it is the tragedy of a nation disrupted by a vain and aging leader.
From past performances at Amador Valley Community Park, I knew SF Shakes has a delightful knack for adding modern tweaks to the 400-year-old plays. This time, brief news updates were heard via cellphone -- Black Lives Matter protests, storms brewing -- which made the themes current but without interfering with the Bard's text.
The pacing was excellent, marching forward without sacrificing emotion. And it had the immediacy of live performance -- which, of course, it was. The production includes rich sets and costumes, until the scene changes to flat, bleak battle camps at the end.
The racially- and gender-inclusive cast is reflective of society today, and Jessica Powell as King Lear did a remarkable job capturing the conflict of being both king and mother. The 13 actors really understand and convey the emotion behind Shakespeare's language.
Their interaction was mesmerizing when I thought about each performing in whatever space they'd designated in their own homes. It was easy to forget they were not together onstage, as my mind flitted between the unfolding drama and the logistics of the production.
In Act III, because the Earl of Gloucester, played by Phil Lowery, needs to be tied up, his wife was recruited for the bit part. Also fascinating was the sleight of hand used in Act V to pass a piece of paper from one character to another.
An ongoing chat feature enhanced my viewing as SF Shakes gave a running commentary. When someone commented on the excellence of the audio, SF Shakes responded: "The audio is crucial bc the actors depend on sound cues since they can't see each other."
I learned cast members do their own lighting, using instruments provided by SF Shakes as well as what they had at home. The actors also do their own makeup after getting private tutorials by a professional makeup artist.
The weapons were designed for the stage but were still considered weapons for shipping purposes, which meant special charges. Even knowing the knives were blunt, I was on the edge of my seat during the knife fight in Act V -- I knew they were actually "fighting" shadows in their own separate homes but nothing was beyond this troupe.
The chat gave warnings when violence was imminent, such as, "If you're squeamish, look away." The bloody scenes, like all the action, were up close and personal. Another chat informed watchers: "The blood budget for this production was $685 for 5 gallons of blood and 34 oz of blood jam!"
Perhaps most importantly, the chat feature allowed the audience to offer cheers, bravos and other enthusiastic kudos at the end. I hope this somewhat compensated the cast for not being surrounded by a live audience.
SF Shakes is producing "King Lear" live at 7 p.m. Saturdays and 4 p.m. Sundays through September plus Labor Day on YouTube with links through www.sfshakes.org. Following Sunday performances, at 7:15 p.m., is a live chat with cast members; sign up ahead of time for a Zoom invitation.
I can only imagine the myriad decisions director Elizabeth Carter must have made for this online production, but the result was spectacular. It is hard to believe that such a sad, bloody tale can be such a gift at this time -- but it is.
Editor's note: Dolores Fox Ciardelli is Tri-Valley Life editor for the Pleasanton Weekly. Her column, "Valley Views," appears in the paper on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.