“Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?”
—-William Shakespeare, King Lear
Well Endowed King
Mark Campbell stepped off the train, alone, into the cold Autumn drizzle and walked the two long blocks through the crystal grid of skyscrapers to the theater. It looked like a gigantic metal cube – like a Borg spaceship that touched down into a wide depression along the busy street. When the city built the new hall Mark read all the articles about it and its innovative architecture. He always sat on the left side of the train so he could watch the construction when he rode by on his commute. He thought that it was so, so cool – but that he would never be able to afford tickets. But he discovered that with every new play that was produced the first night would be a “pay what you can” performance.
At 9 AM on a certain date tickets would be available online for the newest show and the buyer would decide what he would pay. Mark had a quick finger on the internet link and right on time would log on and buy a ticket. He would usually pay five bucks. It was essentially a dress rehearsal but Mark enjoyed the shows, although he didn’t have any luck getting anyone to go along with him.
The theater was like a normal performance hall turned on its side. The lobby was at the bottom of the descending slope, with the performance space above. The top floors were used for offices and rehearsal space. Mark waited in line at the bar to spend ten dollars on a tiny plastic cup of cheap white wine -mostly to have something in his hand as he milled around in the crowd waiting for the show.
The rest of the crowd was divided into couples or small groups, chatting away. Mark was used to being single at these events – but was still more than a little self-conscious.
Tonight, the show was Shakespeare’s King Lear. Mark had seen the play once before – twenty years earlier. He had taken his son to an outdoor summer performance. Mark’s son was only ten and he worried the play would be too complex and dense for the child. But his son loved it – there was enough sword fighting and action that he was enthralled, even if he didn’t really understand what was going on. In the infamous eye-gouging scene, an actor actually threw two grapes on the stage and then stomped on them. His son perked up.
“Hey, what just happened?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing, Nothing.” A father has to lie a little now and then.
The child especially liked the army scenes where they had a large crowd (probably every stagehand and a lot of local volunteers) moving through the trees around the outdoor venue with lamps and rattling swords. It was pretty impressive – he was a tiny bit afraid… just the right amount. He used to really love going to the Shakespeare plays and Mark wished they could have done more. They were so busy.
And now his son had his own life and better things to do than hang out with his old father.
While he milled around hiding at the edge of the crowd, pretending to look at the posters, artwork, and announcements attached to the walls, he noticed something odd. Near the entrance to the stairway to the seating above there was a large, bold card on an easel:
PLEASE BE AWARE THAT THIS PERFORMANCE CONTAINS NUDITY
Nudity? In King Lear? What was that about? Mark didn’t give a damn about that, and the minute the bell dinged and everyone began moving toward their seats forgot the “warning” completely.
One cool thing about the venue is that the stage and the seating was suspended from the top of the building on cables and could be raised and lowered easily to convert the space into any conformation that the producers liked. He had seen quite a few – some were arranged like a standard theater with the seats in rows facing the stage, some were “in the round,” and some had a jumbled mixture of stage and seats with the play happening right among the audience.
Tonight that was the case. There was a single large stage, but the seats crowded in on three sides so that the action would be close to every observer. Mark couldn’t help but be excited at this innovative an intimate arrangement.
As the audience settled in around him two young women, probably college age, took the seats immediately to the left of Mark. They were very attractive and dressed to the nines. Mark couldn’t help but feel a bit of excitement to have such gorgeous people sitting right next to him – although he knew he was invisible to them… at best. These premiere performances often had large groups of attractive young people attend – theater students from local schools and colleges. Watching them left Mark with a bittersweet nostalgia for days gone long, long past.
The two chatted with the ironic, bitter, and sardonic tone that women like that use at times like that. Mark wondered what those two thought of Shakespeare. He had no idea. Even though they were sitting right next to him they lived in a world completely alien to his. Soon enough, the lights darkened and the play began.
It started out with a very spare stage – a wooden wall, a door, a heavy chair, and a candelabra. Mark noticed before the performance a couple of stagehands on hands and knees, carefully wiping the stage down, as if they were worried about bits of slippery water.
The play started very formal and stiff. The actors stood arranged around the seated king in symmetric positions and delivered their lines. It was all very good, but not very exciting. Mark thought this wouldn’t last – King Lear is an avalanche of a play; it delivers its punches full-bore – heavy and hard. It doesn’t fuck around. He worried that they had decided to go all old-school, plain, simple, and it was starting to get a little boring. It might be a long night of interesting but not very passionate storytelling.
Then, suddenly, about a quarter way through, the formal stylized play ended. As Lear was thrown into the storm of madness the wooden walls that formed the back of the stage fell forward into a tumbledown confusion, huge doors swung down from above and a gigantic torrent of water waterfalled down (sort of Flashdance style – on steroids) onto the King.
And all Hell broke loose.
Giant strobes went off above in bolts of terrible lighting, electricity crackled, while deafening peals of thunder roared from unseen speakers. The King was now mad, insane, completely unhinged. He ran around the stage and under the falling deluge until he was drenched to the bone.
And then with a bizarre deranged scream he stood at the front of the stage, soaking wet, and stripped of his clothes. All of them.
Mark suddenly remembered. “Ah, that was why they had the nudity warning,” he thought to himself.
The other actors began chasing the howling naked Lear around the stage and then they left it to begin running up and down the aisles and then even between the rows of seats – the audience would have to sort of stand to give them room to move by.
Mark had to smile. The actor playing Lear was no young man – his hair was snow-white and his face wrinkled from many, many decades. But he was slim, muscular, and still very toned for his age. He was athletic and quick, moving through the audience with a grace and speed that made it believable that the other actors could not catch him and run him to ground.
The naked actor was impressive in one other way. The King was very well endowed. Mark thought, “If I looked like that at his age, I’d be running around naked all I could get away with too.” The King moved down the very row where Mark was sitting, tumbling through, followed by his pursuers.
Then Mark noticed the two women sitting next to him. They were horrified. Stiff as boards, speechless, both of their mouths frozen in an identical rictus of terror. They were completely offended by this naked old man speeding around in front of them. Swallowed by a toxic mixture of anger and fear – this was not what they thought that they were going to have to deal with.
Eventually the others captured Lear, throwing a heavy cloak over him and pulling him offstage. The intermission came right after (stagehands rushed out with mops to dry the stage).
The two women stood and yelled out indignant protests to nobody and everybody. They were so apoplectic, “I can’t believe,” “I’ve never,” and “This is terrible,” were the only snippets that Mark could make out even though he was right there. In an enraged huff they stormed out of the building.
Mark wondered if they had seen the warning card in the lobby. He was amazed that anyone that on the outside posed as being so worldly and sophisticated could be so upset at the sight of a bare old man. Maybe that was it, they weren’t used, weren’t prepared for geriatric nudity. Maybe it was the mature equipment. Maybe their boyfriends will be viewed with less enthusiasm going forward. Mark really wished he could see the two women’s text messages – packets of outrage – they would send to all their friends.
The rest was crackerjack. The formality gone, torn to the four winds, the play was a tsunami of powerful madness, a foil for the King’s insanity and despair. The fourth wall was broken, with actors fighting in the aisles and lightning screaming through the theater. Mark noticed that even the sound effects added to the disconcerting craziness – every time the King’s mind took a turn for the worst, a crackling buzz came from hidden speakers above the seats – a subtle effect that enforced the impression of insanity and doom.
And then, the tragedy. As the inevitable doom unfolds, the tragic events set in motion by Lear’s egocentric arrogance in the first scene come to their conclusion, the horror sets in.
Afterward, spent, Mark trudged back to the station to catch the next-to-last train back home. He had enjoyed the play immensely. But the most memorable roles were played by the two young women next to him, offended and horrified by the well-endowed King.