Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
"King Lear," a Shakespearean tragedy about an aging British king who seeks to divide his kingdom among his three daughters, is long, complex, gory and dark — not the stuff of a typical high school play.
But students at Arbor View High School have taken up the ambitious task of putting on a production of the show, with an added twist: All of the characters will be played by and portrayed as women.
King Lear becomes Queen Lear. The nobleman Gloucester becomes a noblewoman by the same name. The King of France, who marries Lear’s daughter Cordelia, becomes the Lady of Rome, and their marriage becomes one between two women.
The unusual take on the play has allowed female students at Arbor View to play roles not typically offered to women and has fostered an empowering environment for women, the student actors say.
“Stuff like this just doesn’t happen in general,” said Emily Shoemaker, an Arbor View senior who plays Queen Lear. “When it’s a group of all females, I feel like it’s easier to have bonds with each other.”
Professional actresses typically face stiffer competition than men, said David Kelley, the show director and Arbor View theater arts and film studies teacher.
There are fewer available roles for actresses as well; only 33% of speaking or named roles in top films last year went to women, according to a study from the University of Southern California. The original "King Lear" only includes three women characters, Lear’s three daughters.
The benefit of this production is women are able to play a range of characters, with masculine and feminine characteristics, said Elizabeth Morse, a junior playing Edna (called Edgar in the original).
“It’ll help us have more of a sophisticated palette toward acting, and I think that’s a great experience to have,” Morse said.
The twist on the play also reverses the way in which King Lear was likely first performed in Elizabethan England. Women were not allowed to perform in plays in England until the mid-17th century, so teenage boys often played female characters until then.
The significance of that role reversal is not lost on the students.
“Now, we have an all-girls cast and we don’t need that anymore. We can do this on our own,” Morse said.
The production, titled simply “Lear,” will run Nov. 13-15 at Arbor View, 7500 Whispering Sands Drive.
In addition to being performed exclusively by women, the rendition will be set in feudal Japan, complete with homemade kimonos and traditional Japanese dress donated by the school’s Japanese Club, Kelley said. Kelley decided on the setting after watching the Japanese film “Ran” (1985), which itself follows the plot of "King Lear."
The all-female cast happened a little more serendipitously.
“There weren’t that many guys who auditioned,” Kelley explained. “The guys who did audition were very green, and they didn’t want to commit to it.”
To change characters’ genders and the play’s setting, Kelley edited pronouns, titles and names in the script this summer. He also swapped references to Roman and Greek gods with allusions to Buddhist and Taoist deities.
Understanding and performing the modified play is still a challenge for the students; senior Natally Deustua, who plays Lady of Rome, described Shakespeare as the classical music of theater.
“This play is a lot more complex than anything I’m used to or anything a lot of us are used to,” said Audrey Andrews, a sophomore who plays Lear’s daughter, Regan.
Helping out with the production is Haley Howard, a technical and instructional assistant for the show. An Arbor View alumnus herself, Howard sees the choice to perform "King Lear" as well as the unlikely setting and casting of the play as a way to introduce students to the classics, while also showing them how theater can be reimagined and reinterpreted.
“We can break the rules and still show how universal the story really can be,” Howard said.