nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 20, 2011
The Nonsense Company's Storm Still is described in the press materials as "an extended meditation on Act Three, Scene Six of King Lear." Specifically, the first part of the scene, which is summarized in Sparknotes thus:
Gloucester, Kent, Lear, and the Fool take shelter in a small building (perhaps a shed or farmhouse) on Gloucester’s property. Gloucester leaves to find provisions for the king. Lear, whose mind is wandering ever more widely, holds a mock trial of his wicked daughters, with Edgar, Kent, and the Fool presiding. Both Edgar and the Fool speak like madmen, and the trial is an exercise in hallucination and eccentricity.
Over the course of two hours, the three artists who comprise The Nonsense Company—Rick Burkhardt, Andy Gricevich, and Ryan Higgins—replay this particular scene and explore its themes as well as the broader themes of Lear and, even more generally, theatre itself. A great deal of ground is covered: What does it mean to become insane? What does a trial mean? (Higgins's character, momentarily in the guise of Orestes, argues that the trial at the end of the Oresteia is not about achieving justice but rather about putting an end to an endless cycle of violence.) Why do we have theatre? (The literal definition of catharsis is dissected with thoroughness.)
At the center of all of this intellectual inquiry is a framing device/plot: the creator/performers are portraying three boys who, some indeterminate time ago, took refuge in an abandoned schoolhouse. In the ensuing years, they've made a ritual of performing King Lear, using the found objects and technologies of their new home. Outside, a war rages, endlessly. (As in much of Lear: the play's title comes from the opening stage direction of Act Three.)
It takes a while to piece together this back story, and I still had a major question about it when I left (how do the boys get supplies such as food and drink?). But the concept is fascinating and allows Burkhardt, Gricevich, and Higgins to roam through their source material with a genuine guileless innocence, mispronouncing and misunderstanding words and groping wrongheadedly with adult concepts within the play even as they apply the miraculous ingenuity of the young to stage the classic text with only three actors in mostly unwelcoming circumstances.
There are a few places where the boys—who, lacking other companions and adults to guide them, are perhaps stuck in a prolonged adolescence—experiment with sexuality as they "play" the play. Gricevich's character, who is Edgar/Poor Tom in their rendition of Lear, spends much of the play in a loincloth.
About halfway through, the school metaphor starts to fade as explorations of Shakespeare's play and its broader contextual meaning drift into other territories. Burkhardt "becomes" Higgins/Lear's psychiatrist, and then his physician. Higgins/Lear "becomes" Orestes. Meta-theatrical discussions about the differences between the 1606 and 1624 editions of King Lear are had, along with considerations of the necessity of showing Gloucester's eye-gouging. There's a wealth of ideas bandied about, but I must confess that I missed the boys who had been so cleanly delineated in the first half of Storm Still.
The skill of these three actors is nonpareil: Burkhardt, Gricevich, and Higgins are consummate actors, musicians, and physical comedians, and their work here is breathtaking in its precision. Burkhardt and Higgins sing in beautiful harmony at one point; I wished for more of that. But more figurative harmony informs the piece at every moment: these artists are utterly simpatico, and collaborate with the grace and ease that only many years of close partnership (coupled with extreme levels of skill) can bring.
I didn't leave Storm Still thinking that it was "about" this or that thing in particular; it really is, as advertised, a meditation, and its purpose seems to be to stimulate thought. It's not comfortable theater (and P.S. 122's tightly packed armless chairs render that literal, unfortunately; this is a hard two-hour sit). What The Nonsense Company does here is go on an extended journey through their own obsessions and curiosities, as triggered by these bits of Shakespeare's poetry, and take us along for the ride.