It is remarkably easy to stage a poor production of King Lear. Even if the actors can find a way to effectively portray the complex character of Lear, it takes an incredibly skilled director to organize those roles into a cohesive unit that properly adheres to the magnificent profundity of Shakespeare's epic vision. It's one of the most difficult processes in all of drama, to be sure. Fortunately, local actor/writer Johnny Stallings has found a way to simplify that process a bit: he eliminates it all together.
"I don't know what I would think if somebody told me they were doing King Lear by themselves," Johnny told me during a recent interview at Lewis & Clark College, the site of his next performance. "I would be pretty skeptical I think." Skepticism is only one of many negative initial reactions that the idea of a one-man Lear potentially incites. Thinking Johnny is crazy might be another. But no matter how crazy he sounds, his idea for the show is actually quite sane: "My device for doing this theatrically is that I'm the storyteller and I'm saying that 'once there was a king and he had three daughters, blah blah.' Pretty soon, I've set the stage for the actual scene, and then I just become the different characters. The audience accepts it because it's the storyteller now being an old man, now being a young girl, etc."
Johnny's narrative technique is unique because it filters Lear's subject matter through a cross-cultural perspective : "I'd seen storytellers in India who would be up all night long. From sunset to sunrise they'd be telling stories. Some might be reciting poetry, others are just telling stories, but they all become different characters: Now they're the princess, now they're the tiger, now they're the hunter on his horse, and I saw that these little old fat guys could be anything. Storytelling is a grown-up art there. Over here, we associate it with squirrels and chipmunks and stuff for kids."
This no-frills version of Lear is in fact as grown-up as it gets. Without trivial things like sets, props, costumes, and other actors cluttering up the stage, you'll find your brain forced to concentrate on nothing but the words themselves, which--according to Johnny--is not such a bad thing: "It's arguably the best poetry in any language," he says reverently. After seeing his show, I think you'll be inclined to agree.