Liars and Believers have been creating, conceptualizing, workshopping, refining, and rehearsing this show for eighteen months—and the seasoning has paid off.
Who Would Be King by the Liars and Believers ensemble. Directed by Jason Slavick. Presented by Liars and Believers at Oberon, Cambridge, MA, through November 22.
By Jess Viator
I will begin by confessing: I adore devised theater. Generated from scratch by an artistic collective, this is dynamic and innovative dramatic storytelling at its most exciting, an exhilarating (and unpredictable) intersection of collaborative process and playful creativity. With Who Would Be King, the Liars and Believers ensemble have taken a yarn as old as civilization and transformed it into a whimsical and engaging journey.
Who Would Be King is a re-imagining of the biblical story of King Saul and the succession of David. How do you picture an ancient tribal society on the verge of attainting statehood? Liars and Believers presents the script’s antique culture through the use of skillful clowning. The oh-so-serious prophet, Sam, tries to guide the “Bumbleheads,” but they’ve made up their mind: they need a king.
The buffoonery is delightful. Each of the five ensemble members is thoroughly dedicated to his or her multiple, exaggerated characters and to the craft of physical storytelling; whether they are playing goofy Bumbleheads, divine beings, gruesome monsters, or intrepid heroes, the performers fully embody their roles. There is an inspired moment when the actors quickly shift back and forth, at one moment they are a tribe under attack sending a message via arrow to the Bumbleheads, the next they are the Bumbleheads receiving the communique. Director Jason Slavick’s animated and precise blocking, the actors’ commitment to the action’s impish physicality, and their distinct acting choices ensure that the rapid-fire character switches are never confusing. The result is brilliantly robust comedy.
The ingenious score for Who Would Be King contributes to its giggly spirits. The show’s events are narrated-in-song by composer Jay Mobley, who both relates and comments on the plot. He seems to have invented a music genre: New Wave Liturgical Chant. Imagine an echoing, omnipresent Morrisey as a priest, with a synthesizer. The intense electronic drone, paired with Mobley’s pithy, witty lyrics, integrates farce with profound subject matter. The lyrics are simple but compelling; Mobley muses aloud about the ironies of human nature and divine motivations as the characters amble along on their trip from wayward innocence to self-aware competence.
The story centers on the divine anointment of King Saul. With his newfound power, the ruler magnanimously brings his people together, teaching them how to defend themselves—cue a wacky noodle training montage. The production’s fight choreography is stellar—it is sometimes stylized, manipulating lighting techniques and variations in tempo to create an almost dance-like effect. But when two skilled warriors advance on each other, the moment becomes visceral—the fighting turns aggressive, fast, and very realistic.
Not long after the tribe learns how to fight (and trade in their noodles for actual swords), Saul loses God’s favor. What had been an irreverent jaunt slowly transitions into something much more serious, a story with a compelling psychological theme. Although Saul successfully rules his people for 20 years without divine cooperation, he is continually wracked with self-doubt. As soon as it becomes clear that God has chosen a new king, Saul’s insecurity overwhelms him. He tears apart his kingdom, his supporters, his family, and eventually himself. This section follows the biblical narrative—there are angels and prophets and messages from God—but it never feels preachy or even particularly religious. Liars and Believers are more interested in pointing out that we all want to accomplish something of significance while we are alive, that an equalitarian primal directive drives us all—farmer or marauder or king or systems administrator. And that what undermines our mission to achieve is not divine interference but our own all-too-human insecurities.
Accessibility is clearly very important to Liars and Believers; to that end they perform Who Would Be King in a wheelchair accessible venue that includes a screen on which is projected captions that convey the dialogue, lyrics, and giant howls. The troupe has made audio descriptions available for some of their performances. There is a down side to this admirable impulse. As part of their mission to engage the audience, the cast occasionally tries to speak to individual audience members. This is always tricky—an unsuspecting person who has come to watch a show may not want to be thrust into the spotlight. During the performance I attended, there was an unwilling participant, which sounded a small sour note in an otherwise seamless performance. Who Would Be King is such a communal and engrossing experience on its own that involving the audience directly in the action is unnecessary.
Liars and Believers have been creating, conceptualizing, workshopping, refining, and rehearsing this show for eighteen months—and the seasoning has paid off. Every element of the production is well-crafted. In the beginning the costumes are outfitted with colorful fabric, festooned with ruffles and patches fitting for clowns. But, like the characters who wear them, the garments lose their whimsey and morph into purely militaristic garb. The seemingly uncomplicated set is initially adorned with multicolored patches, which over the course of the show are torn away to reveal very threatening looking swords. The characters begin Who Would be King by singing and dancing to a cutesy, repetitive song; they end up experiencing the devastation of war. Liars and Believers make this challenging journey from the sunny to the sinister with impressive ease.
Jess Viator is an emerging independent theater director, an occasional stage manager, and a lapsed playwright. She has a BA in theater performance, and recently completed a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Dundee in Scotland.