King Leer

What do you get when you pair a Shakespearean tragedy with a contemporary work about a teen bulimic and a pedophile?

Could two plays have less in common? One is a 400-year-old classic written by the world's most sublime dramatist, an overarching tragedy in which man confronts the mystery of the cosmos; the other is a fledgling effort by a novice writer, as immediate as the newest graphic novel. One play deals with matters eternal; the other, with matters of the moment. Yet both evenings nourish the viewer and leave indelible memories.

Age before beauty.

Fontbonne University is assaulting the heights — and a Himalayan altitude it is — by tackling King Lear. Of William Shakespeare's four major tragedies, Lear is the most challenging, and the most unrelentingly grim, for an audience. It lacks the whodunit cat-and-mouse of Hamlet, the direct through-line of Othello, the brevity of Macbeth. Instead it is almost Biblical in its depiction of man buffeted by the whims of godly indifference. Lear is a royal Job — though, unlike Job, Lear has brought his suffering upon himself.

How do you make such a descent into nihilism palatable to the viewer? Director (and Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent began by cutting the unwieldy text down to a manageable two and a half hours. Perhaps some purists will cry, "Heresy! Shakespeare is about the words," and those purists will have a point. No other dramatist wrote such enduring dialogue as did the Bard. Lear is not nearly as quotable as, say, Hamlet. Yet here we find such memorable lines as "Nothing will come of nothing," "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child," "I am a man more sinn'd against than sinning," "The worst is not, so long as we can say, 'This is the worst,'" "The wheel is come full circle."

Of course the dialogue is important, and the essential lines are here. But ask yourself: What do you remember most from your favorite Shakespeare productions? Line readings, or visual moments? In last summer's Forest Park mounting of The Tempest, do you recall how William Metzo's Prospero delivered "Our revels now are ended" (he threw the line away), or does the wondrous image of his flowing turquoise cape linger longest?

I know what I'll carry from this current King Lear: At evening's end, hunched over Cordelia's lifeless body, Richard Lewis' dying Lear gazed up into the darkness with a chilling ferocity that lasered through the theater ceiling and into the very heavens themselves. What words was he saying as his eyes penetrated the universe? As written, the lines "Look on her, look there" appear to be directed at those in attendance. But Lewis seemed to be speaking directly to the feckless gods that would condone such cruelty.

Or perhaps not. Maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe I imposed this interpretation on the proceedings. All I know for sure is that in an instant, Lewis' Lear bored into my being, and the words became secondary.

Come on: It's a student production; it has the deficiencies of a student production. We have females playing male roles (though Dominique Gallo brings a credible oddity to Edgar); we have young actors who are not versed in speaking verse. The last thing these actors need is the encumbrance of still more words. But the evening also has the strengths of a student production: passion, exuberance.

Mostly, though, it has Richard Lewis, who during his brief tenure here in St. Louis has emerged as an actor of strength and versatility. Now we add courage to that list of attributes. Chances are that when the run concludes on Sunday, Lewis will still be scratching out a toehold upon which to build his character. Nevertheless, some of it is already visible. The great actor Charles Laughton once recalled gazing upon the huge stones at Stonehenge and suddenly realizing that King Lear was about "primitive man, prehistoric man, with his knuckles brushing the earth, and his other hand stretched toward God." At evening's end, even as this Lear avoids the abyss of life by succumbing to death, Richard Lewis' fierce, weary eyes are as gnarled as knuckles.

When it comes to eyes, not even Lear has anything on Dani Carter, at least not as portrayed by the indefatigable Magan Wiles. Dani is a seventeen-year-old bulimic teenager, straight out of the hospital, who forges an unlikely friendship with a middle-aged pedophile straight out of prison. You might think that by now vivacity would have been drained from Dani. Not so. Wiles' eyes are as frenetic as two wild birds trapped in a barn: They scramble, scratch and claw.

Dani is the mercurial protagonist of The Sugar Syndrome, a raw, absorbing, darkly amusing drama by Lucy Prebble that debuted three years ago at London's Royal Court Theatre and now is enjoying its Midwest premiere from the Echo Theatre Company. While it's stunning to think that a play of this merit could have been written by a 22-year-old, its very urgency and unself-conscious savvy suggest that it only could have been written by a near-teenager. Its exhilarating and — almost until the very end — surprising ride jars the viewer into a remembrance of just how gripping, fun and immediate theater can be.

Although all four characters suffer the slings and arrows of acute loneliness, Dani is the fulcrum. She's pretty much a mess. She hates her mother (empathetically portrayed by Mary Schnitzer) and is so confused about her priorities that at one point she almost seems disappointed not to have been molested by her father. Dani uses the Internet to find a sexual partner in Lewis, the evening's most enigmatic character. The plot would have us believe he's a loser, yet there's an appealing innocence about Anthony Wininger's performance that adds to the production's unpredictability.

All too soon, Dani takes up with Tim, who is more than twice her age. Their chat-room conversations have led him to think she's an eleven-year-old boy. "Everybody lies," Dani concedes. Tim is almost relieved at the ruse, and soon these two become soulmates. The scenes between Dani and Tim (portrayed with a piercing sensitivity by Terry Meddows in his deepest work in recent memory) are mesmeric, in large measure because Dani and Tim are polar opposites. If Wiles has ants in her pants (not to mention her toes), Meddows is stillness personified. If there's a pillow handy, he'll clutch it against his body as a kind of shield; if there isn't, he'll clasp his hands together. It's as if he'll try anything that will keep his hands to himself. There are few secrets about Dani, but Tim is a human question mark. Is his pedophilia under control? Is he a danger? Is Dani in danger?

Clearly, this quirky relationship cannot come to good. But Prebble's resolution is strangely muted. Rather than build to a climax, the play just sort of stops. At least the author doesn't overwrite; there's nothing to be trimmed here. And until that non-ending, this production, directed by Erik Little, is riveting. There's no way for a viewer to know if Little drew this bumblebee performance out of Wiles, or if he sat back and let her cut loose. Perhaps a mix of both. But he gets the credit for showcasing her at her most nuanced. Follow, for instance, her various hairstyles — from ponytail to flowing to braided, and see how each style captures her waiflike character at that moment. It's also true that Wiles' cavortings never go too far, which suggests that the director was there to pull her back, if necessary.

In an especially unsparing exchange with her mother, Dani cries out, "I'm a child!" That's the key that unlocks these riches. There are lots of plays about children written by adults, but few excursions into loneliness are as fully realized, and as authentically here-and-now, as The Sugar Syndrome.

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