The Lear sisters host ‘a celebration of life’: Queen Lear Is Dead, a Fringe review

Sarah Feutl, Carmen Osahor, Jessy Ardern in Queen Lear Is Dead. Edmonton Fringe 2019.

By Liz Nicholls,

Queen Lear Is Dead (Stage 46, Strathcona Baptist Church)

The premise is downright fascinating: While King Lear is busy running the family business, the kingdom, and all that, and playing his daughters off against each other, where’s his wife? Surely Lear wasn’t always a single father.

It’s too late to meet mom in person (just like it’s too late to run into Hamlet at college bitching about his marks). In Jessy Ardern’s Queen Lear Is Dead, the Lear sisters,  Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril, have announced the sudden passing of their mother. And they’ve invited family and friends to a “celebration of life” in her honour.

What? You didn’t know the Lears were Baptists? Me neither. The first official act of this immersive, site-specific adventure through the labyrinth of the church is to shed light on the locale. Dad, incidentally, hasn’t shown up yet; he keeps phoning Cordelia (Sarah Feutl) who smiles apologetically every time her cellphone rings. Goneril, Gee for short (Carmen Osahor), smiles too, but professionally, between clenched teeth, like someone trying not to let on she’s just bitten down on a bad cashew. Freewheeling, blowsy Regan (Ardern) is late, just like Dad. She rushes in, breathless, loud, stoned, and dying for a cig.

Guess what? The three Lear daughters just don’t get along. This prequel traces the roots of dysfunction in one of the theatre’s great dysfunctional families, back to childhood. It turns out the Lears have stored up a lifetime of flammable little grievances that add up, and ignite from time to time — especially since all three work for the family business. And they need hardly a nudge to start spilling their secret jealousies and resentments.    

Valerie Planche’s production lets us decide which daughter to follow, and listen to, in a variety of church nooks and crannies. (In one, there are cupcakes, but I’m not telling which). The actors are convincing: the cool, appraising gaze of Osahor’s Goneril, the exhibitionist neediness of Ardern’s Regan, the ingratiating charm of the baby of the family, Feutl’s Cordelia.  And as you’ll know from plays like The Fall of the House of Atreus and Prophecy, Ardern is a smart, witty writer. But judging by this premiere production, the premise is punchier than the play.

Largely, I think, it’s because the monologue scenes, with their self-justifications, seem over-extended, the flare-ups a little repetitive (and trimmable). The sheer familiarity of  sibling rivalry is part of the comic point, of course. But the most surprising scene belongs to Goneril, who has a secret sorrow.

The finale, for which we all re-assemble in the sanctuary, reveals something about the sparky sense of humour of the late Queen. It’s a gem.    

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