Backstage: New England Youth Theatre’s King Lear

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(Host) The role of Shakespeare’s King Lear is often seen as the crowning achievement of a serious actor’s career. Actor Stephen Stearns is better-known as a rubber-faced physical comic. He’s the taller half of the internationally known clown duo Gould and Stearns.

In Brattleboro this week, Stearns takes on Lear with an otherwise all-youth cast. Stearns longtime partner Peter Gould directs the play. VPR’s Susan Keese goes Backstage to find out more.

(Keese) The first thing you should know is that Stearns actually trained as a Shakespearean actor at the famous London Academy. The cast and crew of the New England Youth Theatre have just performed Lear in Stratford, Birmingham and Plymouth England. That’s where Stearns cut his teeth onstage in the early seventies.

An interesting aspect of this production is the way it mirrors reality. Stearns started this theater group for high schoolers five years ago, while his partner Peter Gould was off earning a PhD. Many of these kids have been working with him since day one. Like Lear, Stearns is a father figure.

(Stearns) “My goal with the youth theater has always been to develop a space where kids could be safe and work with mentorship and once they they got competent with their skills, they could run the theatre themselves. Lear does the same thing. He figures I’m old now, so I’m going to give up my rule and give it to younger strengths so that I can unburdened crawl towards death. But them he finds that he wishes he had his power back.”

(Keese) In the play the aging king impulsively decides to divide his kingdom among his three daughters. When his youngest and most devoted child Cordelia refuses to flatter him to earn a bigger portion, he becomes furious and disowns her.

This unleashes a storm of rivalry and schemes that ultimately brings the whole family down. Fortunately for the audience, the outcome for the actors is much better.

(Mahoney) “It’s really fun to work with Stephen as an actor as opposed to a director. He’s really fun to play off of on stage.”

(Keese) Brattleboro High School senior Lynne Mahoney plays Regan, Lear’s conniving middle daughter. Kirsten Schrull plays the faithful Cordelia.

(Schrull) “I like that she’s fiery, a little bit. I’ve been portraying her with a bit of pep, as opposed to the wishy washy Shakespeare good princess.”

(Keese) In this scene, where Lear gives away his kingdom, Cordelia’s older sisters have just told the king exactly what he wants to hear. Honest Cordelia refuses to play the game.

(Lear) “What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.”
(Cordelia) “Nothing my lord.”
(Lear) “Nothing? Nothing will come of nothing! Speak again.”
(Cordelia) “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love my lord according to my bond, no more no less.”
(Lear) “How now Cordelia bend your speech a little lest it may mar your fortunes…”

(Keese) In the end, everyone’s fortunes are ravaged in this larger-than-life family tragedy. Stearns says family conflict, envy and betrayal are familiar themes for the young actors.

(Stearns) “These kids are just amazing in their ability to feel. You can’t get people who are 50 or 60 to feel and to act and to commit and to hurl themselves into the abyss the way these kids do. They’re absolutely fearless. It’s just pow! A huge eruption, a volcano of sound and vision and words and poetry.”

(Keese) The theatre itself is an intimate, hole-in-the wall black box on Brattleboro’s Main Street. The scenery in this production is bare bones. Stearns says the play’s rich but sometimes difficult dialogue is reinforced by gesture and body language. Stearns experience with magic tricks informs the scene where Regan’s husband plucks out the eyes of the Earl of Gloucester.

(Stearns) “So when you do it, set the orientation so the grape is.”
(Kid) “Don’t we need two grapes?”
(Stearns) “I’m assuming that I’ve got enough blood in this… Okay Fellows, hold the chair.”

(Keese) It’s the goriest Shakespearean moment this side of Titus Andronicus. Director Gould also sees to it that the actors really understand their lines. Gould and Stearns have done Shakespeare with youth actors before.

Stearns claims the images in Lear are as rapid-fire as the changing screen images on MTV. But in Lear there’s a life changing message that everyone gets to keep.

For VPR Backstage I’m Susan Keese.

The New England Youth Theatre Production of “King Lear” will be performed in Brattleboro through Sunday. For more information, visit NEYT online.

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