I read somewhere that the threat of apocalypse has killed metaphor. (The flag-burning brat Irony still makes the late-night talk-show rounds, though.) News-channel staple and scourge of dreams, Armageddon is tangible and terribly possible. But the motives behind it remain foreign and remote, largely out of sheer unfeasibility—Christopher Hitchens’s anti-rationalization doctrine is as much an emotional imperative as a moral one. Two recent, metaphor-wielding productions likewise struggle to unpack a narrative choked with meaningless suffering, but in both, the end of the world takes form as a rending and disintegration of family ties. The force of evil runs in the blood; it’s contagious, like original sin.
Adrift respectively in the early Middle Ages and Flannery O’Connor’s freak-tent medievalist South, King Lear and the stories that make up Everything That Rises Must Converge end in the death of a mother or father (among others)—a death brought on, however indirectly, by their progeny. In O’Connor’s feverishly Catholic tales, these are swift, near-Falwellian acts of divine justice; in the essentially pagan Lear, the fates of the king and Cordelia (and the lives of Goneril, Regan, et al.) would seem to subvert heavenly commandment. And yet for all this primordial chaos, love is the devil. The overarching fatal flaw in both texts is tyrannical love—that which attempts to control the will of its object, turning it into a blind acolyte or a mirror image. When the glass cracks so does the earth.
Strict devotion to one’s author is a given in the New York Theatre Workshop’s production of Everything That Rises Must Converge, since O’Connor’s estate required the adaptation to follow the source text word for word. (The collection was the author’s last; it was published in 1965, one year after her death.) The precept would seem to displace stagecraft for staged reading—right down to “he said” and “she said”—and that’s exactly what this triptych, drawing on the first stories in the collection, threatens to be for its first few minutes. Eight actors sit in a row facing frontward. One avuncular fellow (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) begins spinning a yarn about a stubborn old codger and his dead-ringer granddaughter while the others listen attentively. But soon enough, a few of these audience members join the story as characters, and everyone jumps from their chairs and stacks them up in the shape of what we’re told is a buggy. The curmudgeon (Michael Moran) and his sullen little girl (Kelli Rae Powell) clamber on. The book is still open, but the pages brim with colorful illustrations.
Tied to the written word as she is, director Karin Coonrod leaves her actors otherwise unfettered: The stage is naked, the backdrop an Abstract Expressionist smear of red, white, and blue. Indeed, sometimes the production benefits from the imposed limitations. The faithfully recited text frees up the loose, versatile performers for more conceptual interpretations of the action, so that ghastly scenes of lethal violence freeze into eerie tableaux vivants. In “Greenleaf,” the pivotal peckish bull—equal parts Christ figure and sword of God—is wittily represented by several players moving en masse and murmuring under their breath. In “A View of the Woods,” two blood adversaries argue not face-to-face but side by side, calling out angrily to the audience as if their opponent were impossibly far away.
Though the tales in Everything That Rises Must Converge were written in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the American civil rights movement was in full flower, O’Connor’s black characters are largely peripheral. (An exception is the huge, imperious bus rider who acts as something of a deus ex machina in the title story.) This absence is acknowledged, if not redressed, by Coonrod’s production, in that the cast’s three African American actors each have a turn as narrator. In the stories, black skin relegates its inhabitant to the outskirts of storytelling, but onstage it grants an objective writerly distance. Coonrod builds on this subtle interpolation at play’s end, when one of the narrators, Ayeje LaVonne Feamster, leads the cast in a wordless, oddly hopeful spiritual. This multiharmonic gospel song, gorgeous in its ambiguity and born far from Mass, unexpectedly crystallizes the religious passion behind O’Connor’s obsession with doom, damnation, and transcendence in a way that may never have occurred to the writer herself, or her readers.
Governed by form above all, Everything That Rises Must Converge remains an elegant but definitively prosaic homage to its source. Many would contend that such an achievement is the most one can hope for in a modern King Lear. “Too huge for the stage” was A.C. Bradley’s deathless conclusion; Charles Lamb was only the first to suggest that it be retired from the stage altogether, and be read forever more. By all appearances, the pomo miscreants in the Belgium-based Needcompany agree on the subject of Lear‘s unperformability, and giddily set about performing it all the same.
Director Jan Lauwers sets the text in Dutch, English, and French, running the translation on an overhead LED screen. (Regan has to glance at it to remember her husband’s name.) The actors seem alternately bored, distracted, or put out, and perpetually startled to see each other. When Gloucester laments, “My old heart has cracked,” he might as well be muttering that his car broke down. “Edgar I nothing am,” Edgar offhandedly remarks, mild and pleasant. Score-providers the Residents cut and scratch fragments of Bedhead, “My Baby Does the Hanky Panky,” and screaming disembodied guitar feedback. Spaghetti-limbed modern-dance interludes are symphonically choreographed around acrobatic genuflecting motions. And for crissakes, Cordelia never says, “No cause, no cause.”
The incredulous shrinking audience hurried out in droves, yet this Next Wave Lear proved more intellectually engaging and viscerally entertaining than the lead-footed F. Murray Abraham rendition at the Public Theater in 1996 or the Globe’s literal-minded go at it this past summer. Lauwers’s sprint through the acts was glib, warmed-over Dada at worst, but at its best—e.g., during the cacophonous Act V, replete with strobes and munchy vultures—the production resembled a Fischerspooner multimedia tribute to the Wooster Group. Needcompany’s elaborate bafflement before this unfathomable tragedy was exhausting but heartening. Shouldn’t every true Lear be something of a catastrophe?