Victory at the Dirt Palace's Lear on the Air

Talk about a ratings war: The Riot Group’s mordant 2002 satire Victory at the Dirt Palace, inspired by King Lear, concerns dueling father-daughter reporters James and Katherine Mann (Paul Schnabel and Stephanie Viola). Each is desperate to triumph in the Nielsens. When a terrorist attack briefly troubles the nation and the airwaves—“Some tall buildings aren’t as tall as they used to be,” explains one character—their rivalry turns cutthroat.

Adriano Shaplin helped found the Riot Group in 1997 and pens all of their scripts. He writes dialogue at once swift and baroque, reveling in the possibilities of language but rejecting any phrasing that can’t be spoken at a repeating-rifle pace. In this context, the sections of Shakespeare don’t feel too intrusive; they merely intensify the father-daughter conflict. (However, in this version of Lear, Cordelia’s kind of a bitch, and I’m pretty sure the Shakespeare concordance doesn’t include “Suck my dick.”)

Throughout its 80-minute running time, Victory doesn’t offer any fresh or sustained critique of the evening news. Rather, the play’s pleasures lie in its language and in its ensemble, under the direction of Whit McLaughlin. As in Pugilist Specialist, which made its New York appearance in 2004, the Riot Group gives a vigorous impression of a corps intimately linked. Though the actors pass much of the play staring straight at the fourth wall, barking out their lines to the stage lights, they all seem to sense every gesture and expression of their fellows. This sensitivity contrasts nicely with Shaplin’s prickly dialogue. An announcement of another Riot Group show in New York—now that would make excellent news.

 
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