Three good reasons to catch “Lear Khehkwaii” – Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre’s Gwich’in language version of “King Lear” - when it receives its one and only Anchorage performance at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Alaska Native Heritage Center:
1. If there’s one thing Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre does really, really well, it’s Shakespeare. They concentrate on the bard and have more experience with his texts and the performance styles associated with them than anyone else in the state.
2. The production runs just 90 minutes with no intermission. This necessitates some splicing of characters; Edmund, for instance, is rolled into Cornwall. It also cuts out a lot of the long language that can make the play tough going for both audience and actors. It furthermore compresses the action is a way that, if not precisely faithful to the words of the author, is not unjust to him either.
3. Allan Hayton’s performance in the title role holds your attention like an anchor holds a small boat. Whether speaking in Gwich’in or English, his personification of the crumbling king is an impressive piece of theater.
I caught a performance for well-behaved ASD, home-schooled and college students on Tuesday morning. The morning light coming through the big windows in the main Gathering Place room at the Heritage Center made the English translations, projected on screens behind the actors, impossible to read. No matter, the English portions and the acting conveyed the story clearly and effectively – more effectively than some all-English performances that I’ve seen where the speeches of the plays lunatics bordered on incomprehensibility.
The script, prepared by Gwich’in speakers Hayton, Pete Peter and Marilyn Savage, alternates between the Athabascan dialect and English portions. Often the Gwich’in is used for asides, curses and monologues. You don’t need to understand a word of it to understand what’s going on.
“Lear Khehkwaii” sets the action in interior Alaska in the late 1800s. Characters dress in a mix of traditional Native, formal Victorian and wild west apparel, skins, beads, Hudson Bay coats, furs, a bowler – all items one might see in photos from Alaska during that period. The fool, played by Peter, has a feathered top hat and carries a skin drum and a fiddle, both of which he plays at different times. The men all seem equipped with big hunting knives.
There are a few nods toward localisms. “Team” replaces “horse” a time or two. But the anachronistic shift is no less unbelievable than setting the play in outer space or Manhattan, as I’m told some have done.
FST stalwart Bruce Rogers is a boisterous Kent. Delinda Pushetonequa and Rebecca Eddy as Regan and Goneril are genuinely unctuous and dislikeable. Princess Lucaj is a sympathetic Cordelia and David Fields makes an appropriately nasty Cornwall.
In the other roles, Wes Dalton is Albany, Raif Johnson-Kennedy is Gloucester – a missionary as well as advisor in this rendition – and J.K. Bowne is France and Oswald.
Director Tom Robenolt told me that Gwich’in was used rather than another Athabascan dialect because people with some familiarity with the language were available, including Peter and Lucaj. Hayton, who teaches the language, has been pushing for a play that would use it for some time, Robenolt said.
After tonight’s single Anchorage show, the play will have public productions at Soldotna High School on April 10 and Healy Tri-Valley School on May 7. School productions will take place in Home4r on April 12, Seward on April 15 and Tok on April 24. After that the show will go to other schools, mostly off the road system, before reprising in Fairbanks at the Empress Theatre.