In 1978, Maria Rendina Frantz lost her father to cancer. Nine years later, still grieving his death, the New York-based dance artist began work on a new dance play: a production of King Lear that would blend Shakespeare’s tale of father-daughter bonds with her own. King Lear: Visions and Divisions premiered at Columbia University in 1987. This weekend, Rendina Frantz is staging it again for Santa Barbara audiences.
From the beginning of her career, Rendina Frantz has been interested in finding a union between dance and theater. Her productions tend to incorporate sections of pure movement alongside more traditional theater staging. The cast of King Lear is composed of three dancers and four actors; Maia Mook plays the role of the fool and narrator, switching between Shakespeare’s ancient tale of love and loss and Rendina Frantz’s modern one. The songs of Istanpitta Early Music Ensemble set the stage; otherwise, it’s a fairly spartan set.
Rather than re-creating the work exactly as it was done 24 years ago, Rendina Frantz wanted to revisit the original impetus in a fresh way. Rehearsals often involved improvisation; the performers have brought their own interpretations to the material. “I tend to work as a director,” Rendina Frantz explained. “Sometimes I give them exactly what I want, but more often I give them an idea for improv, and we work it through with feedback from everyone before we finally set something.” Anthony Kortick, Stuart Ornstein, and Matt Tavianini round out the acting cast; dancers Kendra Fong, Abigal Linton, and Jenelle Porfido Rodriguez play the roles of Lear’s three daughters.
“Maria went about it first from a dance perspective,” Tavianini explained of the rehearsal process. “It wasn’t psychological realism. She wanted us to start out not knowing the original work; she’d just give us a general idea of what was going on, and we’d improvise.” Though the method required the actors involved to work in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways, said Tavianini, the end result works.
If creating a theatrical production based on her own life was risky, making one about the life of Christ was in some ways an even greater challenge. Mysteries of Light, Motion Theatre’s evening-length production based on the story of Jesus, premiered in Santa Barbara in 2003. Now, Rendina Frantz is bringing it back in a condensed version. Among the cast members are Aden Hailu, Carol Sauceda, Allen Stewart-Oaten, Tino Viramontes, and Rendina Frantz herself.
Like King Lear, Mysteries of Light is narrated by a woman: an imagined midwife who delivered Jesus and lived to tell his story. The production alternates between pure movement and dialogue. The work is one in a series of concert dances focusing on spiritual traditions: only after creating “Chidambaram” (Buddhist), “Abaya” (Sufi), and “Blessings” (Hindu), did Rendina Frantz feel ready to tackle the Judeo-Christian faith. “The whole process was, for me, a way of trying to find spirituality through dance,” the artist explained.
Although Mysteries of Light focuses on Jesus’ influence as a teacher, healer, and messenger of peace, Motion Theatre is a nondenominational company, and Rendina Frantz says she’s presenting the story as an artist rather than as a Christian. However, she has intentionally timed the performance to coincide with Lent, and encourages believers and nonbelievers alike to attend. “We’re certainly not trying to convert,” she explained. “Mysteries of Light is about love, and whoever is into that can come and enjoy it.”
Motion Theatre Dance Company will perform King Lear: Visions and Divisions and Mysteries of Light at Center Stage Theater on Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9, at 8 p.m., and on Sunday, April 10, at 2 p.m. For more information, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.