Loading

Who Would Be King

Violence and betrayal, angels and prophets, villains and kings…and chickens. Who rises to rule and how far will he fall in the great clown kingdom of Who Would Be King? This epic production by Liars & Believers swings from absurd buffoonery to high tragedy, with kinetic physicality, silliness, swords, and live synthwave music. Who Would Be King tells the story of a good man given an impossible task and asks, what separates good from great and what lies in the chasm between?

Next stop: New York City

March 16 – April 1

A Fling with Ars Nova at Theater 511

Buy tickets

Artistic Team

Liars and Believers – Who Would Be King – New York debut – Ars Nova

Behind the Scenes

 

A note from the dramaturg
by Amanda Faye Martin

Who Would Be King is not a theatrical translation of a biblical tale, but a story reimagined, inspired by the idea of a man who tries his best but is swallowed by insecurity. While the culminating world premiere may seem no different from a play rehearsed with a pre-written script, it was uniquely created between collaborative theater artists and their continued dialogue with the public. Through an artistic residency at Oberon, Liars & Believers began the devising process by improvising around concepts in the Bible’s account of Saul, the largely forgotten king before David, the hero who slayed Goliath. Throughout three month-long workshops and two public presentations with post-show audience feedback, countless revisions have been made over the course of the eighteen-month developmental process. The play has inspired numerous discussions and subsequent modifications, but the establishment of a cohesive through-line and the relationship between physical and spiritual worlds presented interesting dramaturgical challenges.

While the Bible interweaves the stories of Saul and David, Who Would Be King has become less about tracking the crown and divine favor, and more about the universality of Saul’s predicament. The first few drafts presented multiple, switching protagonists; we tracked Sam the prophet, Saul, and then D (our iteration of David). The current form reflects feedback we received after the first staged reading, which indicated the need to focus on a character and theme. During revisions, we revisited the catalyzing impulse to retell this story, which was to explore how Saul’s condition reflects the all-too-familiar sense of desiring success and being unable to find solace. Though he leads a prosperous kingdom for twenty years after losing God’s favor, Saul feels like a fraud, always on the verge of being discovered. Without divine support, Saul becomes insecure, certain he will never be good enough. His downfall was not a result of ineptitude, but self-doubt.

In addition to narrowing in on Saul’s journey, divine presence has become a core area of investigation and change throughout the process. In both our story and the Bible’s, we see God thrust Saul, an ordinary farmer, into Kingship after the people of a lawless region demand a leader. Though originally skeptical, Saul settles into his role after defeating opposition, but loses God’s favor by failing to blindly follow commands. Instructed to not only destroy a village, but “wipe out the memory” of a people, Saul appeals to a sense of personal rather than divine morality and makes a series of choices that a modern audience would consider reasonable. Rejecting Saul, God anoints D, who follows the Lord’s law to the letter.

The God in this story seems elusive, and somewhat callous. If omniscient, why would God ordain Saul, if his best couldn’t be good enough? Doing so would imply that God either lacks knowledge, or punishes an innocent man by pushing him into a necessarily unwinnable situation. God’s actions raise questions, but the character remains mysterious, its motives unseen and evaded. God’s messages are twice removed; an angel relays God’s commands to a prophet, who communicates with Saul. In Who Would Be King, the feeling of this distance has increased over the play’s many iterations. In the beginning of the process, the word “God” was uttered by both divine and mortal characters, but is only directly mentioned by the angel and prophet in the final version. The people are influenced by God, but seem to have no concept of or attachment to an omnipresent Lord. Though Saul cares deeply about divine favor, his relationship with God is distanced, confused, and frustrating; he often asks for help, but is largely met with silence.

The development of Agnes the angel proved to be a significant challenge as we explored God’s presence and absence in the world. Dramaturgically, the angel isn’t necessary to further the plot; the angel and prophet could combine to form one messenger of God. In the first public presentation of the piece, Agnes seemed distracted, providing information and comic relief, but conveyed little about theological issues. While Agnes momentarily faced obliteration or transformation into a nonhuman stage device, she transformed into a character that not only delivers messages, but also seeks to provide comfort in the world. Though Agnes still occasionally mentions the name “God,” she no longer indicates God’s gender, and frequently uses sobriquets to describe the big “now and later.” Such language better establishes the angel as a symbol of divine distance. Additionally, we now witness God dismiss Saul and Agnes simultaneously – once Agnes’ task of making Saul king is terminated, she finds herself adrift and must find a new place in the universe. No longer an angel of God, Agnes becomes silent, physically representing morphing spirituality. At the second staged reading, Agnes inspired fervent conversation amongst audience members, who found her to be a fascinating, provocative demonstration of God’s evolving presence in the play.

The key to understanding Agnes was to give her a distinct objective and explore how her predicament parallels that of the central character; both Agnes and Saul have a job to do, seem to be given little guidance, but go on despite uncertainty and rejection. Many characters in Who Would Be King have a job and do it, despite feeling totally alone and uncertain how to succeed. They keep going because there’s nothing to be done in a role you fell into, other than doing what you can, even if you don’t know what is good or bad, or why you fell into the situation. Such an idea is both biblical and distinctly post-modern, echoing Beckett’s sentiment; “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on” (The Unnamable).

Our process as devised theater makers is as difficult as it is fun. Like Saul, we continually desire to be better, and constantly revise as we negotiate how to effectively communicate the ideas that inspire us within the source material, and what we were moved by in the first place. We go on because of stories like this, that echo the past and resonate in the present, and desire to impart the same sense of empathy and wonder we feel while exploring the characters and world that keep us coming back.

History

Who Would Be King had a workshop presentation on May 18, 2015 and a staged reading on September 2, 2015, both at OBERON in Cambridge, MA

Who Would Be King premiered at OBERON in Cambridge, MA in November 2015. It played at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival in September 2016.

Press

 

“…a re-mixed trove of biblical tales told in a compelling and timeless way with great humor, and great humanity.”

Danielle Rosvally, NE Theatre Geek

“…the buffoonery is delightful… ingenious score… fight choreography is stellar… Liars and Believers make this challenging journey from the sunny to the sinister with impressive ease.”.”

Jess Viator, Arts Fuse

“It’s gorgeous, immersive, ambient spectacle… Who Would Be King is a silly, subversive show with something profound at its core, a sharp wit and a big heart…”

Madison Friend, New Worcester Spy

“Liars and Believers draws once again on their bulging theatrical tool kit…. This is a show with a heart, a mind, and red plastic noses all around.”

Kilian Melloy, Edge Media Network