“Well, that was weird.” That was what the Yale student sitting next to me said when the lights went up on the Iseman Theater Thursday evening. After watching “Songs of Lear” alongside her, I couldn’t disagree — it was definitely odd. But, when audience members in the front few rows began to stand and applaud, I didn’t disagree with them either.
The show is part of the Yale Repertory Theater’s “No Boundaries” series — a collection of works from across the world that attempts to explore the “frontiers of theatrical invention.” “Songs of Lear” was brought to Yale from Poland by the Song of the Goat Theater, an ensemble renowned for its ability to connect with audiences on a multisensory level. The production I saw on Thursday first found success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012, where it was rated the top production of the summer, and it has since garnered rave reviews. When walking down Chapel Street toward the Iseman, I overheard an apparent theater expert tell his friend that the production would be like nothing she had ever seen before. He wasn’t kidding.
When I found my seat, I was facing nine chairs arranged in a semicircle, and nothing else. Instead of an actor stepping into the spotlight to start the show, the director Grzegorz Bral spoke. He told the full house that we “might need a bit of guidance” with the performance. So he painted an opening picture for us, telling us that Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is only the starting point for the work. The production, Bral hoped, was to be a theatrical conjuration of different images in an art gallery that would paint the untold stories of Lear. However, while Bral used the analogy of the art gallery, my experience was much more auditory than visual.
As a Yale student, I should never be surprised by a cappella, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to ever see King Lear explored through that medium. I couldn’t quite imagine the Whiffenpoofs trading snaps, smiles and bow ties for the tears of a Shakespearean tragedy. But, to my surprise, it worked.
I could not understand the words of the actors enough to tell you how many languages were woven into the production, but as I reflected on the piece afterward, I realized that I really didn’t need to understand what they were saying to experience the production to the fullest. In a way that is difficult to explain, I knew exactly what they were singing about. The sounds they made evoked the emotions appropriate for any given scene, and I experienced the catharsis of tragedy as Aristotle intended it.
The production at times felt like a cantata. There was little movement, and uniform costumes made it difficult to interpret which characters the voices were supposed to represent. The director’s interludes after each movement were jarring at first, but without them, I would have been at a loss.
Within Gregorian chants and sacred Ave Marias, the theater group managed to find a contemporary voice. They played with sound in a way no traditional Lear production probably could have. At times, voices were accompanied by instruments from Africa, India and Scotland, and the actors — none of whom were classically trained vocalists — joined in harmonies that could rival the talent of both contemporary a cappella groups and church choirs.
“Weird” may not quite be the right word for this production. I feel like I may have to see it a number of times before I completely understand the story line, but the precision and overwhelming energy of each actor on stage meant that the standing ovation was definitely deserved.