Skeleton Key’s Burger King Lear is one of the wackier pieces of Fresh Meat 5’s opening weekend – it’s a sharp performance of a funny and metatheatrical spin on a Shakespearean classic – but it is not without drawbacks.
In 20 minutes Kate Smith tells the story of King Lear using a variety of fast-food props including several burgers, condiments, a pogo, and even a cute little slider – Lear, Cordelia, Goneril and Regan all have little crowns on top of their buns, and we even get France Fries! The plot of King Lear is presented more or less in its entirety (the Edmund/Gloucester/Edgar plotline admittedly takes a bit of a backseat), and with few words. Smith performs the puppetry solo, using a sort of mumbling clown-speak to communicate very basic dramatic moments between the Shakespearean characters. It does help that the piece is performed on a tabletop with occasional quotes from the source text, the odd dramatic prompt (food fight!), and mostly the witty captions that describe the components of the burgers that represent each character (the virtuous Cordelia is a gluten-free veggie burger, for example). The Lear plotline is bookended by moments featuring Smith as a sullen Burger King employee staring daggers at the audience while a sickly-sweet vintage commercial jingle for the fast food chain plays, and the facial expressions at these moments, as when she uses them to augment the drama of the Shakespeare, are priceless.
Smith’s performance is smooth and polished, but the piece is not without its drawbacks: while the fast food/King Lear pairing is unexpected and all the funnier for it, the two concepts don’t have much in common besides that. A more intuitive Shakespeare connection might be Othello (disgruntled employee getting his revenge on his boss) or Julius Caesar (plotting against a leader/system you no longer believe in), or even Romeo and Juliet or The Tempest (longing for human connection, and Tempest also has a revenge theme).
Admittedly the choice of using Lear makes for a truly excellent title that matches the irreverent tone of the piece, but still the source and the adaption don’t speak to each other in a very meaningful way. The stagecraft is witty, to be sure (the blinding of Gloucester is particularly clever), but the climactic food fight/battle that occurs seems unnecessarily destructive in a space that’s shared with 4 other shows, despite how much fun it is.
There are two major drawbacks, however, that trump the rest. First, the piece relies heavily on audience familiarity with King Lear, which is a great play but not as well known as some other Shakespeare plays. Second, the basic concept of silent tabletop Shakespeare with food props has already been seen in Ottawa this year at the undercurrents festival (the excellent macbeth muet) also in the Arts Court Studio, the current home of Fresh Meat.
Burger King Lear may not be the most original of the pieces at Fresh Meat this year, but it does offer a fun and breezy performance that will keep Shakespeare nerds and food fight lovers alike happy.