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Spirits in Disguise

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INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Renaissance Theatre Company

at the Blackstone Theatre

King Lear

Renaissance Theatre Company

at the Blackstone Theatre

Shira

Cameri Theatre

at the Josephine Louis Theater, Northwestern University

He hath ever but slenderly known himself.--Lear's daughter Regan speaking of her father in King Lear

Slowly, very slowly, my eldest son Max and I have been reading through the 200 stories in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales. We should be hovering somewhere around story 119 by the time you read this.

If I've gotten anything out of Calvino's compendium of fairy tales, fables, rough parables, and peasant anecdotes--I mean, anything besides a sort of alarmed respect for the bloodthirstiness of the folk imagination--it's an appreciation for disguise. Folktales are lousy with disguises, of which there are exactly two kinds: the ugly disguise Virtue assumes in order to evade Evil, and the beautiful disguise Evil assumes in order to destroy Virtue. Understand disguise and you're pretty well on your way to understanding folktales.

Shakespeare understood folktales. Either that or he just absorbed them more completely than anybody this side of Ovid. Shakespeare's plays not only indulge the folk taste for blood, they turn on the folk theme of disguise. In fact, they make disguise a starting point for some of the most disquieting explorations of identity in all our literature.

And also for some of the lightest, sweetest, tenderest goofs on same in all our literature. You can see exactly what I mean at the International Theatre Festival this week, where British whiz kid Kenneth Branagh and his Renaissance Theatre Company are performing in repertory one of the Bard's most disquieting explorations with one of his tenderest goofs: King Lear and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream is mostly about identity, after all--everybody slipping into and out of romantic disguises. Helena loves Demetrius, who loves Hermia, who loves Lysander. He returns Hermia's love, until the fairies come along and reverse the rotation. A certain weaver named Bottom suffers the weirdest metamorphosis: given donkey ears that scare his pals away, he nevertheless catches the drugged eye of the Fairy Queen, who makes him her pampered, braying lover.

None of these folks can be sure who they are from one moment to the next, all the more so because their various disguises aren't taken on voluntarily--or even consciously, really--but are conferred on them by the fairies. And confirmed not from inside themselves, but by their would-be lovers. By their places in the game.

They're all determined by their masks, not to mention their masques: a fact underlined in director Branagh's brief prelude to the play, where the lovers dance disguised. There's a sweet irony in the fact that the most elusive, most evanescent creatures here--the fairies--are actually the most stable.

If Midsummer plays it for idyllic laughs, King Lear takes the notion that the mask makes the man and turns it into a cosmic nightmare. Stumbling--no, careening--into his dotage, Lear is so lost in appearances that he imagines he can divest himself of the reality of power and still retain its appurtenances. He therefore hands his lands over to the two daughters who are willing to fawn on him most, angrily disinheriting the one who won't play. He demands the privileges of a king while kicking his kingdom out from under him.

With the substance of his identity gone, Lear quickly lapses into a delirium of shifting personas. Very much as in Calvino's folktales, Evil assumes the beautiful disguise of loving children while Virtue's made to take on progressively meaner and more horrific masks. Lear himself becomes a kind of poet of disguise, as his pain is transformed into a madness in which every role melts into the next and the only indisputable identity is attained through death.

Branagh and company never really push this mask theme--except perhaps when Simon Roberts's triumphantly rotten Edmund revels, a la Richard III, in the sheer pleasure of dissembling. Or when the magnificent Emma Thompson appears as the Fool, wearing skeletal whiteface and hobbling on deformed legs.

But even those passages are played without much overt conceptualizing. The beauty of Branagh's direction in both Midsummer and Lear lies in its matter-of-fact humanity. In its refusal to trick things up. One of the most sublime scenes here is also one of the simplest: Edward Jewesbury's old, blind Gloucester and Richard Briers's old, mad Lear sitting as if on the bank of a stream, their shirts open, their pants legs up around their knees, sharing their common despair.

Interestingly enough, Briers's wasn't the only Lear offered this week at the festival. Ilan Dar played one, too, in the Cameri Theatre production of Shira. Based on a novel by Israeli Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon and performed by an ensemble from Tel Aviv, Shira tells the anomic story of Manfred Herbst: a mediocre, middle-aged family man who emigrates from Berlin to Jerusalem in the 1930s, only to conduct a small-scale Holocaust against himself.

Like Lear, Herbst is a father of daughters; like Lear, he knows himself but slenderly; like Lear, he falls into the fever of identities. Listless and vaguely rebellious when his wife gives birth to their third child late in life, Herbst takes up with a 30ish nurse named Shira. This isn't your typical mid-life fling, however. Herbst isn't looking for his lost youth. Just the opposite: youth is with his family, and with the developing Zionist/socialist nation, as personified by Herbst's kibbutznik daughter, Zohara.

No: with her Louise Brooks bob and her powdered face, Shira is a ghost of European decadence. What Herbst longs for is the moribund, reactionary culture he left behind. More, he longs for death itself. This is made horribly clear when leprosy eats away Shira's face and hair, leaving her without her Weimar mask. Revealing the skull beneath the skin. And Herbst decides to stay with her. Herbst kisses her and confirms his devotion. Literally makes love to Death.

Very much unlike Branagh, director Yoram Falk tricks his production up like crazy. The show is full of pseudoexpressionist devices, some of which fail miserably. But the sense of angst, of existential drift Falk evokes is chillingly effective. And that final image of Herbst and his inamorata--her true identity finally revealed, her disguises put aside--will stay with me a long time.

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