The Riot Group’s Victory at Dirt Palace was the Occam’s Razor of adaptation: sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. I’ve oft complained about half-ass adaptations for a myriad of reasons: mixed messages, too much flash and too little thought, and outright bastardization of performance, adaptation or no.
But The Riot Group takes King Lear and transforms it to a clear, fun, and challenging piece on the nature of power in our media-dependent society. James Mann (our kingly leader of primetime news magazines) is shaken when his cold, forthright daughter, K, is positioned in the same time slot. Age versus youth, control versus greed, ego versus greater good are all still here (okay, maybe not greater good; goodness they’re a bunch of bad people, aren’t they?). All the action between K and James and their conniving assistants, Andrew and Spence, are played out at the respective news desks. They direct their vitriol at each other via their cell phones, pausing occasionally to watch the other slip up on their monitors. The competition heightens when a horrific act of domestic terrorism occurs, thinly veiled as “the tragic event of five minutes ago,” and James’s age, nerves, and fury, break his broadcast.
The interactions are quick, cold, and seething, even on the few occasions when K or James wax nostalgic on family ties, and Whit MacLaughlin’s direction must be congratulated for that. But the two incredibly noteworthy names are Stephanie Viola and Adriano Shaplin. Viola plays K to perfection, not an easy feat in the least; a character haunted by being kept in shadows has enough pent up rage to explode, and rather focuses it into the cool, calculating, and ruthless daughter she deems necessary. Her performance was captivating and heartbreaking at once. Shaplin, who wrote the piece and plays Spence, has produced a script that doesn’t overextend itself, remaining fun, compelling, and to the point. Add a few clever touches, such as both James’s and K’s object permanence disorder, in which they are unable to recognize hidden objects even though they’ve just been revealed moments prior, and James’s downfall to local weatherperson in Durham:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
That make ingrateful man!
And you’ve got yourself the adaptation that fulfills its role: bringing the issues and literature of the past into the present.
Indeed, the only irony of Victory is that the network news conceit seems a bit anachronistic by today’s standards. The cutthroat desire to scoop the Other Guy seems to belong to a bygone era of Edward R. Murrow or Howard Beale of Network than the saccharine characters, the Katie Courics and Brian Williamses, of today’s network “battles,” not to mention the total diffusion of news outlets via cable and the Internet. When John Stewart is the most trusted person in the profession, one must reassess the role of broadcast news. But it is certainly forgivable in this context, and I hope The Riot Group gets an opportunity to revive the piece for a longer run.