It was hardly a typical Shakespearean setting on Jan. 24, as the Red Monkey Theater Group performed King Lear at the College of Mount Saint Vincent’s (CMSV) black-box theater.
In this production, King Lear lamented his disloyal daughters over a cooler and a deck of cards with his Fool, who spoke with a Southern accent, surrounded by a desolate landscape.
Between acts, mournful Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty songs played as the King’s two conniving daughters grappled for his crown as he spiraled into madness.
Shifting Shakespeare’s works to different times and places is nothing new. Baz Luhrmann replaced swords with guns in his modernized Romeo + Juliet; Orson Welles’ 1937 production of Julius Caesar was set in fascist Europe.
For Red Monkey’s Artistic Director Tal Aviezer, the Southern, post-apocalyptic setting was hardly a stretch.
Some linguists, Mr. Aviezer said, believe the Southern accent to be the closest to an Elizabethan accent in modernity. Immigrants from the United Kingdom, he said, settled in the Ozarks. Isolated by the landscape, their British accents morphed, but the original accent can still be detected in words like “yonder” and “dollar.”
“They wouldn’t use [these words] in modern English anymore, but they still use them in the American South,” said Mr. Aviezer, who joined the company in 1999. Since the company began its residence at CMSV in 2012, Mr. Aviezer has directed five shows at the college. The group’s production of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters launched the 2013-2014 season.
Mr. Aviezer said the setting he chose for the Red Monkey’s production of King Lear emphasized the sense of tribal loyalty that is prevalent in the play.
Stepping down from his post as king, Lear jeopardizes his entire society. “That never works out well in Shakespeare,” Mr. Aviezer said of leaders who renounce their posts.
The artistic director also chose to recast several of the play’s male characters as women. The Fool, Kent, and Gloucester’s son Edgar — renamed “Emma” — were played by female cast members. Having auditioned many talented female actors, Mr. Aviezer selected sisterhood as this season’s theme in order to provide roles for those women.