It’s easy to imagine a production of “King Lear” at the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark: You can just picture the mad, dispossessed king defying his fate in the shadow of the towering, rusting furnaces.
But Risher Reddick, who’s directing the production for Quantum Theatre, says the setting's resonance goes beyond pure spectacle. Reddick calls the Carrie Furnaces a metaphor for the story of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragic hero.
“In King Lear, we watch a man stripped of all that has defined him,” says Reddick, who is now based in Massachusetts but lived in Pittsburgh on and off for several years. “He’s a king, he’s a father, he’s ruler, he’s a man of authority. And through the play, we watch each piece of that get taken away on his journey towards death. And this place, the Carrie Furnace, is in a way a monument to that same stripping of identity that Pittsburgh underwent as the decline of the steel industry took that part of its identity.”
Reddick says neither Pittsburgh's story nor Lear's ends there.
“Pittsburgh has found this way forward, that while it has that history of the steel industry, it is not defined by just being a steel town. And we see that same story in 'Lear,'” he says. “Lear focuses so much on his authority, his power, all these trappings of his identity. And when they get taken away, we get to see what he loves and find out who he is.”
Quantum’s production is based on a newly edited version of “Lear,” a streamlined text by University of Pittsburgh professor James Kincaid and scholar Julian Markels. Reddick directed a reading of the script a few years ago at Bricolage Production Company. In the audience was Quantum artistic director Karla Boos. Quantum, which builds site-specific theater spaces in unusual locations, did the logistics with Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, which runs the Carrie Furnaces site as an interpretive center.
Quantum's production stars Bricolage founders Jeffrey Carpenter and Tami Dixon as, respectively, Lear and the hard-hatted Fool.
Carrie Furnaces is the remnants of the Homestead Steel Works. The site shut down in 1982, and for decades sat vacant and devoid of human activity except for guerilla artists.
In recent years, after receiving formal status as a National Historic Landmark, the Carrie site regularly hosts arts events. Quantum’s “Lear” might prove among the more memorable.
The show takes place outdoors, in two distinct settings at the site. The first three acts will be performed before dusk, amidst the furnaces’ industrial ruin, where a key feature is the Carrie Deer, a two-story sculpture of a deer head made from wire and other materials found on site in the late 1990s by a group of artists known as the Industrial Arts Co-op. It will also feature what Quantum calls “a trio of towering puppet figures” by set designer Tony Ferrieri, evoking Lear’s kingdom at its height before he unwisely divides it among two of his three daughters.
At intermission, around nightfall, the audience of up to 150 will be escorted across the sprawling Carrie site to the Iron Garden, which incorporates both native plants and concrete remnants of the Homestead works. This more intimate setting will frame the production’s final two acts.
Along with Carpenter – who was among the guerilla artists working at Carrie Furnaces back in the day – and Dixon, the cast of top local talent features Dana Hardy Bingham, Ken Bolden, Lissa Brennan, Monteze Freeland, Jessie Wray Goodman, Catherine Gowl, Connor McCanlus, Joe McGranahan, and Michael Angelo Turner.
The show runs about 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission, says Reddick.
Quantum Theatre provides funding to WESA.