The works of Shakespeare, the great Elizabethan writer, are still very much alive and well in the modern theater world. It came as no surprise to me that even the COVID-19 pandemic could not stop the performance of his beloved plays. Not only did Penguin Productions’ troop of 14-18 year olds perform for a digital audience instead of one packed into the red seats of a theater, they also rehearsed entirely on a digital platform.
The video performance began with a short introduction from director Shana Bestock, whose video then fades out as classical music takes over, a transition that will become familiar from scene to scene in this hour-long production. The backdrop of a scraggly tree, surrounded by a desolate and foggy landscape with black shadows encroaching from both sides, took over the screen for a few seconds. It is then that a group of high school students embarked to capture the classic Shakespearean story of King Lear.
The story of King Lear begins with the titular character, an elder king ready to divide his kingdom among his offspring. He fishes for compliments from his daughters, two of which lavish him with professed love while the youngest one remains silent. It is the latter who travels to marry the King of France, while the two eldest daughters turn against their father’s rule. In response, King Lear falls into madness, and, while other sinister plots are being enacted, disaster ensues.
The actors fully embraced the online platform of their performance within the boundaries of Zoom: a grid of rectangles on the screen each enclosing a different character. Each character was dressed in black, with a white backdrop filling up their rectangle of space. All of them arranged upon the same backdrop of the scraggly tree, each confined to shoulder-up shots. A few top hats helped distinguish the characters, but, except for a crown and some additional hats that pop up later in the play, the cast relied heavily on their lines and acting to differentiate from each other.
Throughout the play, there was a clever use of different backdrops to support scenes, so in that regard, the larger variety of backdrops and fluid transitions allowed it to benefit from the online structure. Near the end of the performance, there was even use of the image of prison bars on top of the videos of actors to enhance the scene.
The shoulder-up shots were a fun nod to the Zoom calls taking over many of our lives, but it did cut down significantly on any body language of the actors. Despite this, the actors were clearly very dedicated to the diction of their performances vocally and it was impossible to ignore the passion that they had for their performance. That said, at times the actors did not seem fully comfortable with the script, perhaps due to a shortened rehearsal time as they adjusted to rehearsing online.
Their performance added so much more to the printed script than I’d encountered in English class, as they really utilized volume and facial expressions in their delivery. The youth putting on this play added energy to each scene and this liveliness did not lessen as the play progressed. The soliloquy performed about seven minutes into the video is a particularly good demonstration of the spirit that the group brings to this performance of King Lear.
It was inspiring to see young artists continue to embrace their passion for performance. They fully incorporated the digital platform that they were constricted to, going beyond working around their situation to working with their situation of social distancing. I appreciate the resilience of this group and their bravery to further a passion during our quarantined world.
I am so glad that this group decided to continue on and produce this play. It was a wonderful experiment that incorporated Shakespeare’s 16th-century work with the modern structure of video calls. As artists around the globe adapt to a digital world, it will be thanks to pioneering works like this that we are still able to appreciate nuanced performances.
Penguin Productions performed King Lear via Zoom on May 23, 2020. The performance is available to watch via the Northwest Arts Streaming Hub. For more information and to watch King Lear see here.