Christopher Bernard reviews Songs of Lear at Zellerbach Theater

Songs About an Old Man and the Daughter He Betrayed

Scene from “Songs of Lear” (Photo by Z. Warzynski)

Scene from “Songs of Lear” (Photo by Z. Warzynski)

Songs of Lear

Song of the Goat Theater

Zellerbach Theater

May 11-12, 2019

Berkeley, California


A review by Christopher Bernard


Tragedy can be said to succeed or fail by the power of its logic. And that logic, in the theater, is linear and rigidly chronological. It is as harsh and clear as a syllogism: if the folly of x happens today, then the horrors of y will happen tomorrow.

Attempts to break with linearity are in danger of spoiling the tragic effect: the catharsis – the purging of pity and terror – that lies at the heart of the peculiar satisfaction tragedy affords. Shattering and reshaping “the linear” has its own satisfactions, as can be seen in postmodern aesthetics at their most audacious and skillful, but the tragic effect is not always one of them. This basic strength, or weakness, of tragedy is exemplified in the work under review, which attempts to pierce to the “essence” of Shakespeare’s vision; though, as sometimes happens, when you strip away supposed inessentials, sometimes the essentials volatilize almost entirely away.

Not that the effect here is not theatrical in the best sense. And, as a work of music, it is completely successful. Here is a case where creating the right expectations is essential to effecting the right satisfactions.

“Songs of Lear,” which Cal Performances brought to Berkeley this weekend, is, in fact, not a work of musical theater so much as an oratorio with movement, sometimes pantomime, sometimes fiercely chthonic dance, and a narrator, a “guide” who sets up each scene; in the case of this performance, the warm and welcoming director, Grzegorz Bral. The music consists of a song cycle for soloists and chorus in twelve numbers, expressing some of the dramatic high points of Shakespeare’s drama; in one or two cases, inventing scenes implied by the story. It was developed by the Polish theatrical company Song of the Goat Theater, headquartered in Warsaw; the company was once under the aegis of the Grotowski Institute, and the influence of Grotowski’s explorations into what he called “objective drama” and voice work seems clear.

The work premiered at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival in 2012, where it won several important awards. The music includes Renaissance church polyphony, Corsican folk music (a style immediately recognizable to aficionados of Bulgarian and other Eastern folk music, with which it has strong similarities), and original music by Jean-Claude Acquaviva and Maciej Rychly; the music moving from the historical western forms, which dominate early on, to complete domination by the even more ancient folk forms at the performance’s stark conclusion.

(To be strictly candid, the musical tapestry moves from a simple figure, performed at the very beginning to establish tonality among the (for the most part) a cappella singers, through the evolution described, back, at the very end of the tragedy, to a reiteration, with subtle elaboration, of that first simple figure, a musical symbol of the circularity of time and the eternal recurrence of history.)

As music and a form of dance, “Songs of Lear” is absorbing, often moving, with its sharp and soaring vocal lines, its engulfing polyphony, its driving rhythms, its stabbing emotions of love and loss and betrayal. But as an attempt to encapsulate one of the most searing dramas in theatrical history, I felt it distinctly over-reaching; like sign pointing earnestly at something called “Tragedy” rather than its overwhelming embodiment in the here and now. It may perhaps be better for the spectator to know nothing of King Lear before attending; you will have no expectations and therefore no disappointments.

Too much is left out for those burdened with memories of the play: the scenes of Lear’s madness on the heath, for example, which one waits for in vain; the subplot involving the Duke of Gloucester and his sons Edmund and Edgar; and much of the story involving the betrayals by Cordelia’s sisters, the hypocritical and stony hearted Goneril and Regan; Lear’s deepening madness itself is more hinted at than portrayed. What is meant to be “essence” can easily shrink to the merely schematic (an occasional fault of the Grotowski school of theater elsewhere).

Two further criticisms: first, the use of Latin and Christian liturgical polyphony. Shakespeare’s play is based on a legend going back to pre-Christian Britain; there is the merest hint of a Christian civilization in the play itself, and no hint of an afterlife in the play’s metaphysics. The play is starkly this-worldly; the religious haze created by the music early on suggests a possibility of transcendental redemption the play itself does not pretend to; even eliminates.

My second criticism is the “guide,” part lecturer, part narrator, a role that seems an afterthought and does not feel convincingly integrated into the production. I felt that either the role should be eliminated entirely or, if not eliminated, made an integral part of the presentation; in the performance I saw, the guide’s regular intrusions, instructions and underscorings of points being made, detracted from the tension that a drama of the magnitude of King Lear has every capacity to generate, even in a reduced version as presented here.

The twelve songs are performed by a dozen singers, half male, half female, some of the singers doubling on instruments. The emphasis of the songs is on the damaged relationship between Lear and his daughter Cordelia, played by three different women (if my count is accurate; at least, it is more than one), with another of the six women playing the Fool. The last felt like a mistaken bit of casting; not that the woman wasn’t fully equal to the part—she was—but the men onstage needed more to do; this is a feminist production almost to a fault. A younger man plays the vanishingly small role of the Earl of Kent, an older man the maddened, and maddening, old king.

We are warned in the program that this is a “non-linear” presentation of the play. So it is not a surprise that the “scenes” do not always follow those in the drama; for example, Cordelia dies before Lear goes mad, though in the play this happens in reverse; it is precisely Cordelia’s death that brings the old man back to reality. Lear’s mad ramblings on the stormy heath get short shrift – an odd decision, as those scenes are certainly among the most memorable in theatrical history. Lear without the heath is a little like Hamlet without his soliloquies; he just becomes one more crazy old codger abusing his family.

If you attend this production expecting an oratorio roughly based on the story of Lear and his daughter Cordelia, and forget the rest of the play – in other words, forget “King Lear” altogether, and just see “Songs About an Old Man and the Daughter He Betrayed” – you are likely to have a very satisfactory evening. I, unhappily, was unable to clean Shakespeare’s mad, demented domestic tyrant and the overwhelming violence of his fate from my mind. The music will carry you to music’s rapture; the discreet choreography has undeniable power; and the performers are altogether winning in both movement and song.


Christopher Bernard is co-editor of the webzine Caveat Lector. He writes on dance, art, theatre and literature for Synchronized Chaos. His latest novel, Meditations on Love and Catastrophe at The Liars’ Cafe will appear later this year.



Synchronized Chaos April/May 2019: Rumblings from the Subconscious

Welcome to April and May’s combined issue of Synchronized Chaos Magazine. In this issue, lots of thoughts rumble up from our subconscious minds. Silly, deep, noble, ugly, poetic, concrete, rebellious, nostalgic, wistful, altruistic, romantic – our minds contain within them rich multitudes, a plethora of thoughts.

Jacek Yerka’s Subconscious Tower

A few pieces literally concern the subconscious.

Liz Hughes reviews Clem Masloff’s book Galactic Minds in her regular Book Periscope column, which is about a form of psychotherapy that involves the merging of the conscious and subconscious minds.

Cristina Deptula discusses Nisha Singh’s Bhrigu Mahesh: The Witch of Senduwar, which is a mystery novel where the hero believes that we can approach human psychology scientifically enough to say for sure that someone had it in them to do something. Detective Bhrigu Mahesh believes that we can ultimately understand the workings of both the conscious and subconscious mind.

Henry Bladon shares a piece about psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who seemed to enjoy getting people to challenge their thinking by making unconventional statements and encouraging them to embrace distress and confusion.

Other pieces can be divided into a few broad categories.

Memory and nostalgia

Joe Balaz sings a pidgin ode to the good old days and a lament on how times change, while Sandra Rogers-Hale gives a humorous take on whether she needs new technology. 

Artist Jeongeui paints a mountain mirrored in a lake. Reflections are like memories in that they resemble reality, bringing scenes to mind again. Also, as with our memories, some aspects of reflections are exactly accurate down to the last details, while others can be distorted and differ from the actual object.

Al Murdach remembers the flannel-board Christianity of his Sunday school days, while reflecting on feelings of implicit exclusion of those who are ‘imperfect.’

Michael Noel offers a tribute to musical great Dick Dale while Norman J. Olson describes visiting Elvis’ mansion, provoking thoughts on the King’s legacy, death, and how we all might be remembered.

Joan Beebe celebrates memories of happy family life, which are a comfort to her in a current time of sadness. J.J. Campbell finds that even nostalgia is a weak comfort in times of loss.

David Estringel writes of various forms of subtle grief: the loss of some poetry scenes to consumerism, a breakup that submerges him into his bed pillows, and just the slow death of not feeling his life is going anywhere.

His pieces resemble the negative side to Bob Eige’s painting Hall of Mirrors or Same Old, Same Old – the repetitive monotony.

Recollections of words and thoughts and images, sometimes loosely organized

Art by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Vernon Frazer’s concrete poetry adds words upon words, creating moods and images in a style organized like classical music. Ian Allaby does something similar with onomatopoetic words, lushly describing his wish to win someone’s heart.

Alan Britt reflects on the limitations of words to describe life, but acknowledges that words are often all we have.

Rodney Gardner’s poems intimate plant reproduction, meditating on awkwardness and death as we move through the life cycle.

Phillip MacDonald thinks of a tree’s changes through the seasons with a haiku, a poetic form evoking a glimpse or a brief thought. Jeff Bagato contemplates the banana in a longer but still thematically similar piece.

Christopher Bernard poses the paradox of a chilly spring: too sunny to be confined indoors, yet still cold enough for the days to feel like ice, slowing us down when we go to experience the word.

Walter Ruhlmann drags us through the miasma of where our minds can go with too much silence: ugliness in the harsh light of reality. Luke Kuzmish writes of low-budget hotels, too-early mornings, and social injustice with short lines that slow the reader down, giving a weary tone to the pieces that matches the subject matter.

Various contributors’ different takes on love

Mark Murphy shows us the paradox of middle age: we have more mature bodies and understand the world in deeper ways, but still possess the desire and hope to be loved.

Mahbub gives us poems of empathy, short little wishes and bursts of connection.

Chimezie Ihekuna asserts his sexual ethics and advocates against using others for one’s selfish ends.

In an interview with Carol Smallwood, children’s author Nancy Levinson discusses balancing writing with caring for her ill husband.

Contemplations of who we are, who we can be, where we fit into a larger world.

The NYPL’s digital collections include a number of maps in the public domain, like this 1672 world map by Pieter Goos.

In Ryan Flanagan’s tales of transgression, speakers engage in activities that are to some degree illegal or unsafe, and find them exciting. Christopher Bernard sneaks out to see Notre Dame during a high school trip, experiencing a moment of transcendence at age 17 that has become all the more poignant given the recent fire at the cathedral.

Adesina Ayobami Idris’ piece seems a satire of the facile get-to-know-you questions that proliferate on social media, but goes deeper, revealing her determination to find joy in the vastness of the universe, despite loss and grief.

Poet Steven surveys islands off the coast of Scotland in an elegantly restrained five-part piece, reflecting that in some ways they have not changed much over time. He also reflects on the limits of language and logic in pieces that rely heavily upon both.

Janine Canan reminds us that human civilizations come and go. We always live within nature, and She has the final word. In Jeff Bagato’s poetry, nature retakes civilization entirely.

Thank you very much for your perseverance in following your conscious and subconscious minds through the various posts of this issue!

We at Synchronized Chaos Magazine encourage people to read our regular contributor Mark Murphy’s story and consider supporting his fundraiser at the below link! 


Mark enjoying poetry at a young age

10 years ago iI was living with my American wife in the UK. We were married in Dublin and then lived in the UK for two happy years, until my wife, Nora, was deported for not being a British citizen. I am a poor poet, living on benefits, due to my disability, and I haven’t been able to travel to America to see my wife because I cannot afford the air fare to get there, which has resulted in me not seeing my wife for over eight years.

In the meantime, I have written a full length collection of poems, ‘To Nora, A Singer of Sad Songs’ that is to be published this year by an American poetry press in New York. Nora is very excited and happy about this, as you can imagine. Alas, Nora desperately misses me, and needs to see me. Hopefully, this fundraiser will raise the money I need to make the trip and visit Nora and her son in upstate New York. If all goes to plan, I will visit Nora for a full month and explore the options for our future life together, including the possibility/probability of one of us re-locating to a different country. I’m also hoping to kill two birds with one stone, firstly by seeing Nora, and secondly, by promoting my new book with poetry readings. If luck is on my side, the book may well come out before I arrive in America and I may even be able to arrange some book signing sessions in local bookshops!

Here is the very first poem from ‘To Nora…’ which was written before we ever met in the flesh, and now stands as testament to our lives apart…

My Love is in America

I cannot hold you, nor yet kiss you,
yet with your song
you have rendered my heart
incapable of hiding in the loneliness of the moon.

Whatever histories pass us by
(whatever tyrants shall rise and fall)
I will bring you my poems
with bread and flowers
and we will make our bed in fields of wheat.

Whatever Graces attest their favour
(whatever divinities shimmer in the night)
you will come to me, eternally,
yielding your body, your mouth to mine,
and I will yield my seed, the fruit of all my blood.

My love, I cannot live without you,
it would be Death
and Death is over there
beyond the joy of song, beyond the sightless stars.

I hope my friends, colleagues and contacts on Facebook will understand my plight and my deep-seated need to re-unite with Nora, and donate whatever they can, small or large, to help facilitate my travel costs. My deepest thanks in advance, to anyone who responds to my call for help. May you live a blessed life.

Poetry from Joe Balaz


Da good old days
is kinnah like wun haze

and you gaddah go through wun maze
just to get dere.

Time’s ovahlap
is wun big lau hala mat

dat wen cover da linoleum floor.

Try open da door
and go inside

and you going find
dat da house is not da same.

You gaddah know dough
dats to be expected.

Dust off da hat
put ‘um on da head

and see how it fits today.

Restring da ukulele
so you can strum da buggah

foa see if you can still carry wun tune.

Da sparkle remains in da kupuna eye
and all da mo’opunas wonder why

mesmerized like alert zombies
on dere smart phones.

Dey stay losing touch wit demselves

cause dey kannot be alone
wit dere own minds

witout longing foa da mystique
of all dere gadgets.

If dey had to use wun quarter
to make wun call in wun phone booth

dey would tink
dat dey wuz back in da caveman days.

To dem

grandpa and tutu
look so funny

staring off into da distance
as if dey wuz remembering someting.

Well, dats how it is,

cause da vanguard
is carrying new colored kahilis

foa replace da oldah ones.

Different kine designs
on da feathered cloaks too

if you look real closely.

Da good old days
is now part of da universal fabric

dat some people wish dey could bend
through light, speed, and gravity,

so dey could jump back
into da previous frame.

kahili Feathered standards on a pole.
kupuna Elders
lau hala Dried leaves.
mo’opuna Grandchildren.
tutu Grandmother

Poetry from Rodney Gardner


Duplication through your submission

Numbers tallied through a gem between her legs

Fruition may come through your probing

Perverted penetration and perforation

Subverted and diverted

You, the present resident is bent

Tortured and incorrect

Greetings to you

Abundant redundant fuck

Today is your moment

The armless plastic monarch

Shares her gift with you

A dummy goddess in true beauty

We tolerate no disrespect

Monorchid plastic outside

The soft interior bestows transfiguration

Your essence drains through your toes

New version conclusive

No longer elusive




Green Machine

The machine has died

In its wake, a dirge plays on

The sound is deafening

Anguish of two thousand souls

Soon to join the ether

You clutched my hand

Holding tighter than I could remember

And I wondered in death

If I would still know your smile

The first time I heard that laugh

“These truly are the best of times.” I said

We walked further toward the center

The end all


A breeze swept through

With it the smell of dead plant matter and chemicals

Withering trees outside concluding as we were

Placing the masks over their faces

Indistinguishable from the next

Like they’ve always wanted

Rodney Gardner was born in California in 1975. At 30 he was ripped away from the west coast to finally become a real adult somewhere in Texas. He enjoys those things enigmatic and dark, seeking catharsis through the creation of music and poetry.

Poetry from Ian Allaby



scheming, pouring potions, weaving wily words

circling the cerulean planet

planning, plotting, persisting

until at last some fatal vernal cosmo-teleo-blast

propels me, hurtles me

down down down

faster nearer faster nearer faster

till my thermo-armor melts in the searing sparks of the all-disdaining aura of the moth-cremating upper dazzlysphere

and my dura-dyno-wingtips crumple in the turbulation of the semanto-flagellic tendrils of the hyper-yakkityband

and my accu-sensors fizzle in the oleo-plasmic blur of the holy family-festing in the hollows of the humdrumityderm

(parachute! where’s my parachute?)

and my neo-electro-circuits flicker in the shattering reverb of the haunted ethno-echoes of the paleo-obligatum stratum

and my astro-motors sputter in the swirling hypno-quicksand of the kohl-eyed slammo-shutto of the valentine-bespangled larmo-ladyrinth


smooth as an arrow gliding

like light beneath the door sliding

awed and exultant i enter once more

the endorpho-morpho-phano-blastic core

of the moist flowerpot centre

of the naked molten essence

of the hub

of the hidden sacred part

of the secret satin city of your ever-loving heart



Elizabeth Hughes’ Book Periscope

Galactic Minds by Clem Masloff

Galactic Minds by Clem Masloff

Galactic Minds is a sci-fi- novel that would be appropriate for teen through adult age group. It is a very well written story about a psychiatric galactic hospital ship that travels to different planets and picks up mental health patients for treatment. The doctors try to help them using archetypal therapy which brings the conscious and unconscious minds together. The therapists enter into a new type of therapy that may help the patients even more. I thoroughly enjoyed this short novel and know that lovers of sci-fi will too.