Lear in Paris

“Better thou hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.”
(King Lear to his daughter)

I performed naked for my father once (you see, that got your attention! ) I’ve written about it on this very blog. I’ve used his voice in a soundtrack and I’ve mined his wartime letters in my book The Souvenir. But it never occurred to me to perform with my father… what would Norman Steinman have thought of the invitation? (I used to tape my family seders for use in my plays, and the one year I didn’t set up the tape recorder, my father asked, “Aren’t we interesting to you any more, Louise?”) Would this very private man have agreed to perform with me, simply out of love and a sense of solidarity? That’s what three stolid German fathers agreed to do with their daughters who form the radical theater collective She She Pop, for “Testament,” an astonishing take on King Lear which I saw at Theatre des Abesses earlier this month in Paris (in German with French supertitles.)

There’s a saying in French: tenir tete a quelqu’un… standing up to someone. How do we stand up to someone who has power over us? What if Norman and I had aired our disagreements, our differing perspectives of life– on stage? What if I’d argued to the audience as witness– that my older brother, the math genius and doctor-to-be, received preferential treatment during my childhood? What if my father had bemoaned on stage my choice of going into the theater and said, as he often did, “You’d have made a very good lawyer.” This is raw, uncomfortable powerful theater.

It was deeply moving to see these flaccid older men stripping to their underwear in the “tempest” scene (while being doused with water from a plastic bottle by one of the daughters), revealed in all their frailty and wounded pride. An annotated paperback of Lear—a template for this deep conversation about parent/child issues, is displayed on the wall with an overhead projector. Key words set off the scenes—what is the equivalent of your father arriving at your house with his courtiers? Lisa Lucassen diagrammed how much space would be left in her tiny flat if her father moved in with his entire library, concluding, of course, absolutely none. One daughter/actor recites all the benefits her father will receive under the German health care system, while on a video screen (the camera is live on her father on-stage), he intones repeatedly in a quavery voice, “but I will always love you. But I will always love you.”

She She Pop/Testament

She She Pop/Testament

Perhaps my father, like one of the German fathers in the play, would have graphed a complicated mathematical equation (he was once a math teacher) to chart the dynamics of our love and obligation for and to one another. My pharmacist father may not have understood why his daughter spent hours in a dance studio, crawling on the floor or playing with Howdy Doody puppets. But he never withheld his support, emotional or material. And he was there in the audience for my performance at Project Artaud, accepting a piece of matzoh from his naked daughter on the stage. Ah what one does for love.

Louise and Norman

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