She She Pop’s Testament is unforgettable. It’s indulgent, starchy, often boring, and deeply moving.
The German group “is a female collective,” states its program note. “The existence of male members and collaborators has but little influence on this fact.” Sorry, guys…or congratulations? Anyway, the male members onstage with Fanni Halmburger, Lisa Lucassen, and Ilia Papatheodorou for this production include Sebastian Bark along with Joachim Bark, Peter Halmburger, and Theo Papatheodorou—the fathers of Sebastian, Fanni, and Ilia.
Shakespeare’s King Lear, a tragedy that involves a dying king dividing his property among his three daughters (it goes poorly), is Testament’s inspiration. Here, there are three fathers to go with the three daughters (or, as it were, two daughters and one son), and a raft of real-life concerns to address.
The show is structured in Lear’s sequence of acts, and reference is made to Shakespeare’s text—displayed via projector—but at the show’s heart are a series of vignettes that discuss and dramatize these fathers’ relationships with their children. Each father is now about 70 years old; in turn they talk about their hopes and fears for the future, confront and are confronted about past deeds and misdeeds, and ultimately hand their crowns over to their children in a symbolic change of the generations.
Testament runs almost two hours, with no intermission, and feels it. I’m not typically one to check the time during a show, but I was peeking into my pocket to look at my phone almost every ten minutes of Testament. There are long disquisitions on the similarities and dissimilarities between Lear’s 100 knights and a contemporary father’s 10,000 books. There’s an extensive debate, with graph, about whether fathers should keep their wealth until they die or parcel it out gradually in their old age. Each of the three father-child pairs listens to a song together, and we watch while they listen to the entire song.
Much of the show’s substance concerns the fathers’ (presumably genuine) concerns about the lives of avant-garde performance art that their children have chosen, but at least in this instance, these three fathers are amazingly game to play along. They sing, strip half-naked for the storm scene, and end up in a human pile on the floor along with the four troupe members. When the fathers are performing a work-dance to “Daddy’s Working Boots” while their children jump frenetically around them wearing headphones—perhaps to dramatize their youthful indifference to their fathers’ efforts—you wonder whether the dads are just there to prove a point. “See? I told you this performance-art stuff sucks, and then you asked me to be in your show, and I did, and it sucked.”
There are moments, though, when the show comes together and becomes briefly transcendent. In one scene, Fanni Halmburger recites a litany of the tasks a child must undertake in the care of an aging parent; in the background, her father quietly sings “I Will Always Love You” (another Dolly Parton song). In the storm scene, the troupe members gently strip their fathers while the fathers recite their ages, their birthplaces, and the number of children they’ve sired. Buoyed by Christopher Uhe’s music, the scene reminds us that we’re all living the epics of our own lives and that, in the end, we will all stand naked against the wind.