As one of Shakespeare’s most popular — and most performed — plays, the tragedy “King Lear” is familiar to many theater patrons, at least the broad outlines. An elderly king asks his daughters how much each of them loves him, banishes the only daughter to speak truthfully and is destroyed by the power-grabbing machinations of the other two daughters and their husbands. To summarize the theme of the play in one sentence, plucked from Lear’s own dialogue, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!”
Just who the thankless child is, and how sharp she can be, is explored in Gabrielle Reisman’s “Storm Still,” playing through Sept. 24 at the Vortex Theatre.
When Lear makes his claim, early in the play, he is referring to Cordelia, the one daughter to refuse to flatter him and state that she can’t compare her love for him to anything else. As the text unfolds, though, we come to view the other two daughters — Goneril and Regan — as the truly thankless children. In “Storm Still,” though, we are given a reinvented “King Lear” that asks us to see the story through the eyes of Goneril and Regan.
Three sisters, in the aftermath of their father’s slow senility and death, are cleaning up his backyard while, at the same time, playing out an abridged, modernized version of “King Lear,” something they used to do with their father before he became ill. We come to learn that the sisters are, themselves, named Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and their lives hold an eerie resonance to the play.
As we discover more of the sisters’ history with each other and with their father, their play-acting of “Lear” gains greater resonance. This forces us to reconsider who should receive our pity — the daughter who fled from an abusive father or the two who remained behind to care for him the best they could, even as he grew increasingly difficult to handle.
Director Rudy Ramirez has mounted the Vortex’ production of “Storm Still” in the venue’s Outdoor Stage, creating the sensibility of an actual backyard. Though this doesn’t do wonders for the show’s sound quality, it allows scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon and prop/costume designer Indigo Rael to go wild with creativity, creating an immersive outdoor environment that deliberately blends the line between on-stage and off.
The three talented actresses at the heart of the production — Andreá Smith as Goneril, Jennifer Coy Jennings as Regan and Amelia Turner as Cordelia — revel in the opportunities this environment creates, utilizing small changes of space, props and costume to contort themselves into the entire cast of “King Lear.” What is most impressive, though, is how, even while in Shakespearean character (speaking in modernized dialogue), they remain true to the core of the sister they portray, creating layers of performative nuance that further blur the distinction between reality and fantasy.
This blurring of lines lies at the heart of “Storm Still,” as the three sisters find the boundary of their lives and those of Shakespeare’s characters to be a porous one. What bleeds through, they discover, is the thankless love that ultimately binds them together.
When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday through Sept. 24
Where: 2307 Manor Road
Information: 512-478-5282, vortexrep.org.