Dads, Deconstruction and Dolly Parton: She She Pop and their Fathers' "Testament" Feb 1, 2013

by Willie

When I was asked to blog about She She Pop and their Fathers' “Testament” for OtB, I did some very cursory research, saw the words “King Lear,” and was struck with a feeling of vague panic. This seemed like a pretty heady (read: German) show, so I’d better be prepared. Were they going to talk about Brecht? Beckett? Dramaturgy? (Answers: Yes, briefly; Maybe?; and Yes, but there’s significantly more Dolly Parton in “Testament” than theory.)

I knew I’d read “Lear” somewhere down the line, but when? And what was it about? Shit, alright, Lear, that’s the one with the old guy? And, uh, the crappy daughters? And France? Of course, I put off reading anything about “Lear” until just hours before showtime, at which point I read a summary of it and thought “OK: daughters, crazy guy, blind guy, fool, France, everyone dies. All set!

I shouldn’t have bothered. In “Testament,” She She Pop and their Father’s don’t interpret “Lear” so much as use it as scaffolding, and what they build is at times intense and at times deeply silly. It’s a consistently riveting piece of theatre and, to put it bluntly, the best performance I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing, and probably the most moving piece of art I’ve come across here in Seattle. 

“Testament” is impossible to explain succinctly, but here’s the basic gist: Three members of She She Pop enlist their septuagenarian fathers to be part of a production/deconstruction of “King Lear,” which touches on their relationships with their fathers and what they will do as these men age and, eventually, die. Like “Lear,” “Testament” is separated into five acts, and like “Lear” it traces the path of children inheriting from, caring for, neglecting, reconciling with and eventually mourning their fathers.

The performance is set on a simple stage with three recliners (shades of Archie Bunker) and four large screens (there are three cameras, each pointed at a recliner, and yet another focused on a whiteboard that displays, besides the text of “Lear” itself, a physics-derived unified theory of inheritance, among other things). “Testament” shifts in tone rapidly, going from an intergenerational a capella rendition of “Somethin’ Stupid” to a frank and powerfully sad explanation of end-of-life caregiving. The three old men line dance to Dolly Parton (She She Pop gets some serious mileage out of the former proprietor of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), and then are stripped of their clothes, and that’s barely scratching the surface of this weird piece of theatre.

Looking at that description, it all seems impossible or, worse, insufferably artificial. In fact, there’s an exchange about halfway through the show were the actors and their respective fathers are arguing about dramaturgical authenticity (one of the conceits of the show is “re-enactments” of the rehearsal process; each member on stage wears headphones and monotonously repeats what they said while “Testament” was in progress), where one of the fathers decries this very thing. “I’m just playing the part of myself; it’s not me,” he says.

Despite the ambition and the artifice, She She Pop and their Fathers earn every minute on stage. “Testament” feels personal and real, as if She She Pop had heaped so much on top of this play that all it of had compacted, geologically, into something simple and beautiful. Case in point: at the emotional height of “Testament,” one of the actors reads a list of things she must do while her father fades into senility. It’s not a pretty list, and then the emotional volume is ratcheted up when her father starts singing a simple rendition of Parton’s “I Will Always Love You. It sounds totally ham-fisted, I know, but it just works. People were crying into their scarves while this craggy-faced German physicist staked his claim on one of the best love songs of the 20th century. It was mesmerizing.

If you’re going to go for sentimental, you can’t pull up short, and “Testament” is so totally uninterested in itself as a piece (while remaining gleeful at it’s own deconstructive flourishes), and so totally shot-through with warmth and affection, that you can’t help but be moved. You should go see it. And then you should call your dad.