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[whitespace] 'Lear's Daughters'
Daughters of Darkness: Jean Johnstone, Suzanne Schraf and Julie Willhite as the Lear kids.

Strange Little Girls

'Lear's Daughters' tries to understand Shakespeare's angsty princesses

By Rebecca Patt

YOU CAN ANALYZE Shakespeare's King Lear all you want, but ultimately it all comes down to one question: Can't we all just get along? I mean, why exactly is everyone so bent on destroying each other? We're talking about a family where daddy dearest is sticking it to his youngest, most loyal daughter on the inheritance issue; meanwhile, what is up with his two eldest daughters, who are completely off the charts in the greed and cruelty department? And where the hell is the queen?Lear's Daughters, a production by the all-women's theater troupe Friends of Gus, tries to fill in the blanks about the dysfunctional Lear family by taking us back to their early years. In this confusing play, we see that the Lears behave the way they do mainly because they have more issues than a week's worth of Jerry Springer.

Daughters starts off strong as the princesses introduce themselves with engaging monologues about their passion for art--Goneril, the oldest, is a painter; Regan, the middle child, is a woodcarver; and Cordelia, the youngest, is a writer. The girls spend their days up in a tower, cared for by a nurse and a hermaphroditic court jester who is also the play's narrator. Meanwhile, their lecherous father travels around the countryside on the sporting circuit, rarely seen by his daughters, although they do catch a glimpse of him from their window one time as he gropes another woman. You can imagine how much that helps.

Their nervous mother does little more than read through the kingdom's accounting books and wait around in case Lear returns to do the not-so-wild thing with her in an effort to produce a male heir. These absentee parents barely interact with the girls. In fact, they don't even have a flesh-and-blood presence onstage--their characters are portrayed by broomstick puppets wearing bejeweled crowns, controlled and spoken for by the Fool.

As the indeterminate amount of time spanned in the play drags on, the parental neglect and the isolation in the tower takes its toll. Things get particularly grim when Regan mysteriously becomes pregnant, and eventually has an abortion induced by medicinal herbs. Soon after, the play culminates into the opening lines of King Lear and the sounds of Tori Amos.

The play, written in 1989 by the Women's Theater Group in London and based on an idea by poet and writer Elaine Feinstein, has some beautiful lyrical language in it, even if the plot doesn't make much of an impression. The cast is a collective class act, and they give their all to the material. Susan Forrest (The Fool) and Jean Johnstone (Regan) really toe the line onstage as far as being striking and charismatic. Suzanne Schrag (Goneril) and Jean Weisz (Nurse) are subtly skillful actresses, and Julie Willhite (Cordelia) gives a hyperactive performance replete with shrieking.

If you're suiting up for this one, don't forget to brush up on your Lear (Thanks, Cliffs Notes!). Personally, if I'd wanted to wallow in female and familial pathos, I'd have done better to pass on the play and just listen to the whole damn Tori Amos disc.

Lear's Daughters plays May 10 through June 8, Thursdays (2-for-1), Fridays and Saturdays, at 8pm at the Broadway Playhouse, 525 Broadway (near Ocean). Tickets $12 general, $10 seniors/students. Call 429.2339 to reserve.

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From the May 15-22, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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