Quantum’s King Lear at Carrie Blast Furnace

The girl and I were thrilled to catch Quantum Theatre’s outdoor production of King Lear.

The smell of a storm in the air, gusting wind, piped-in industrial sounds (metallic groans and rumbles) and the knowledge that the only reason we were able to get tickets was this was a special add-on performance to make up for a show that was rained out over the weekend all added to the tension before the show.

Heather Mull (Quantum Theatre)

This production cut the opening talky sequence in which Gloucester tells Kent about the two sons we are about to meet, so that the show began with Kent (Monteze Freeland) singing a labor protest song as Lear (Jeffrey Carpenter) enters up the center aisle, dragging a tremendous cape that turns out also to be a giant map of the kingdom he intends to divide among his three daughters.

Keith Srakocic (AP)

When Cornwall (Conor McCanlus) delivered his line, “Let us withdraw; ’twill be a storm,” he was smiling because just then, the rain that had been threatening finally came. For the next few scenes, the stage directions call for “Storm and tempest” and “Storm still,” and Nature happily obliged. A few interstitial scenes meant to take place indoors took place on the balconies and catwalks of the furnace structure, but the rain continued through Lear’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!” speech, and through the scene where Lear for the first time shows concern for another human being and gives some of his clothing to “Poor Tom” in the storm, and by the time the action moved into a farmhouse, the rain had stopped.

For Act II, the audience moved to a different location, a glade with trees and rocks, which made for a much more intimate performance space. After two reunions — Lear and his honest daughter Cordelia (Catherine Gowl), Gloucester (Ken Bolden) and his honest son Edgar (the versatile Conor McCanlus again); two smooches — Gloucester’s dishonest son Edmund (Joseph McGranaghan, whose Kylo Ren vibes my teenaged daughter commented on admiringly) and each of Lear’s two dishonest daughters (Lissa Brennan as Goneril, Dana Hardy as Regan); and some sword fights, the bodies start to pile up (including Jessie Wray Goodman as Oswald). Michaelangelo Turner plays Albany (Regan’s husband) as a capable and put-upon everyman. (Several of the supporting players also took on additional minor roles.)

When the lights went out to prepare for Lear’s heartbreaking final entrance, the skies flickered with non-theatrical lightening that was coming very close.

Heather Mull (Quantum Theatre)

An extra-special shoutout to the audience member whose phone got an unexpected solo during Lear’s final scene with Cordelia.

Just after Lear announced “This feather stirs; she lives!” the Quantum founder and artistic director Karla Boos ran into the playing space shouting, “Hold! Hold!”

Boos stopped the show with just a few minutes left — with Lear still alive — to announce a downpour was on the way.  We were to follow the lighted path towards our cars and go home.

Cordelia’s corpse opened her eyes and laughed at something Lear said to her.

As crew members started breaking down the equipment, the audience cheered and applauded. (Carolyn and I were not the only ones hooting at the top of our lungs.)

Cast members helped gather the props that were still strewn on the grass. (I almost tripped over a dagger.) We took a few minutes to visit with Gloucester (Ken Bolden, or “Uncle Ken” as Carolyn calls him), and headed to the car just ahead of the downpour.

“How is it supposed to end?” Carolyn asked me on the way out. “Was Cordelia really dead?”

“It’s a tragedy, Carolyn. What do you think?”

The AP covered this play, with stories appearing in the Washington Post, USA Today, and the Japan Times.

The Carrie Furnaces are the last remaining structures of what was once the thrumming heart of the Homestead Steel Works, which produced steel used in the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge and other iconic structures. The furnaces along the Monongahela River were built in the 1880s and operated until 1982. Only furnaces No. 6 and No. 7 remain. They’re among the only surviving pre-World War II blast furnaces in the United States, and are designated National Historic Landmarks.

They were also the site of one of the nation’s most dramatic and deadly labor conflicts. In 1892, a labor dispute at the Homestead Works turned violent when striking workers battled armed guards, a pivotal episode in the history of the country’s labor movement. That history also fits into the violence of the play, Boos said. —Japan Times (AP)