The floats under discussion resemble a fusion of Mexican Catholic shrines and entrants for a Thanksgiving Day parade in Las Vegas. Designer Kathryn Rathke's illustrations feature explosions of bright pink, yellow, and red feathers or palm fronds festooning a mock battleship and a tank -- these are the floats for Goneril and Regan, Lear's resentful daughters (played by Grace Bennett and Cindy Whiston, respectively). Another float can best be described as an homage to a water cooler; this will be the float for Gloucester, one of Lear's oldest advisors, who will be played by thirtysomething Sean Belyea as a trumpet-playing hepcat who speaks in a raspy whisper -- at least so far. Everything I'm describing could radically change. Opening night is three weeks away, and rehearsals currently consist of people standing around a table in the middle of a messy room, their faces buried in scripts as they talk their way through scenes, reading lines and discussing their meanings. Once actors are on their feet and the scenic elements arrive, Horton -- a director known for his visual/musical spectacles -- could change everything around. The script has already experienced sizable alterations ("We're going to cut it a bunch, not quite half," Horton estimates), and may undergo substantially more.
One element that will not change is that King Lear, an aging monarch of ancient Britain, will be played by 11-year-old Harry Jamieson. Several cast members assured me that by the time the show opens, Jamieson will be 12, as if that extra year will make all the difference. But in fact, he's already a self-possessed and lucid actor. When asked to describe Lear's journey through the play, Jamieson was matter-of-fact: "At the very beginning, he's asking everyone how much they love him, and so the first two daughters say how much they love him, but his favorite daughter, Cordelia, says, 'I love you how I'm supposed to love you.' He's expecting this big, humongous 'I love you so much' [as he got from the other two], and he's disappointed. So he goes with his first two daughters, and they end up abandoning him. He's looking to them for comfort because they were the ones who were expressing so much love for him, and then he finds out not all of that is true. And then he goes mad. He has nothing else to live for -- er, not like he's going to kill himself, but everything is wrong, so he goes crazy. Just like most people would if it was like that." This is a more clear-eyed summation of the plot than you'll get from most actors (or, for that matter, academics) of any age.
In one of Derek Horton's first performances in Seattle at On the Boards, he fried some bacon onstage with a punk band called Fear the Cow. His first full production was a mounting of Alfred Jarry's proto-absurdist scatology-fest Ubu Roi at the Velvet Elvis in 1994, a play (loosely based on Macbeth) in which the vain and corpulent Ubu becomes King of Poland through murder and treachery. Horton's next production, at the Velvet Elvis the following year, was Our Tow -- a version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town crossed with the writings of Antonin Artaud, song and dance routines about amphibians and pyromania, a porn film, and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Our Tow was followed by similar throw-it-all-in-a-blender spectacles like Fool's Passion at St. Mark's Cathedral, Custer at Nippon Kan, and finally Cat-Like Tread at Annex Theatre in 1997, after which Horton moved to San Francisco and, more recently, L.A. Cat-Like Tread fused Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance with the fraternity/sorority system in Texas and bits from Andy Kaufman and Annie Sprinkle. It's probably remembered by most viewers for the six-minute orgasm enacted simultaneously by about 15 actresses in lingerie, though the opera singer in blackface also made some waves. "I want to embody sexist, racist things rather than talk about them and avoid them," said Horton in an interview at the time.
Such work draws polarized responses; for every positive review, there are a dozen critics calling the productions self-indulgent, inflammatory, or plain obnoxious. Horton doesn't anticipate much else for Lear, and shrugs it off. "There's all this criticism, especially by Harold Bloom, that says you can't do Lear, and it should really be left on the page, and blah, blah, blah," he scoffs. "But millions of people see Christ portrayed in passion plays. The conceit of our play is that we're a community that reveres Lear like it's the Bible -- not to denigrate the Bible -- and this is like a religious pageant surrounding the greatest work of sacred literature ever written, which we're calling Lear, and every year a young boy is chosen to be Lear. This year, Harry's the boy." Horton grins, seeming not unlike a mischievous 11-year-old himself, albeit one with a beard. "King Lear is my favorite piece of literature. You can't define it. It goes philosophically beyond anything I can think of, beyond ecclesiastic. It's existentialism before existentialism, written by a Christian.... You can't, or I don't want to, put any current agenda on it. It's always called a tragedy, but we're treating it like a musical comedy. The idea is to see how much fun we can have with this, not to make a mockery of it. I don't think you could. It'll have all its beauty and dignity, the heartlessness and the depth of cruelty.... Seems to me it is a funny play."
Derek Horton's Lear opens Friday, March 24 and runs through April 9 at Consolidated Works.