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Shakespeare’s 'King Lear,' Starring Sheep

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Although there is surely no shortage of Shakespearean actors in England, one theatrical production has decided to avoid the usual audition process for its rendition of King Lear, instead opting for a decidedly unconventional option to fill the roles: sheep. Director Missouri Williams’ aptly titled King Lear With Sheep has forgone a casting call in favor of employing eight reluctant animal participants to “act” alongside one presumably very patient human actor.

As modern reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s work take increasingly imaginative turns—refer to Baz Luhrmann’s tale of two warring mafia families, Romeo + Juliet ; an adapted Twelfth Night starring then-"America’s sweetheart" Amanda Bynes; and countless stagings of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a Jazz Age, 1960s, trailer park, or hipster twists—the idea of King Lear played by sheep nearly seems like a logical next step. Williams’ vision for the show, however, doesn’t simply rely on its non-human participants as a gimmick. Instead, King Lear With Sheep is a play about a play, the story of one frustrated director driven gradually to madness by the non-compliance of his bleating cast members.

According to producer Lucie Elven, King Lear With Sheep encountered as many obstacles as one might expect before making it from farm to stage. Apparently, it’s not easy to find sheep for hire in central London. The fledgling production’s saving grace was “a 20-year-old freelance farmer named Josh,” who offered the services of eight ewes, “hardened doyennes of the farm” accustomed to interacting with audiences on frequent visits to local schools. Now, Josh's sheep are ready for their big break. To pay the sheep’s (or rather, the farmer’s) fees, Williams took on evening shifts at a pub and began teaching English to foreign students. Alasdair Saksena, the brave or possibly foolish actor playing the fictional play’s director, valiantly fought off his allergies. All of them became well-acquainted with their ovine colleagues’ urine.

Over the course of the rehearsal period, the human cast and crew were spared the usual drama of competing actors’ egos, but had to contend instead with pregnancies, birthing, and shearing. This unpredictability left much of the “casting” process up to fate: the fattest sheep naturally won the role of Lear, the most docile was chosen for Cordelia, and the two most disheveled were cast as Kent and Gloucester. Although, none of the sheep had learned their lines by opening night, nor are they expected to take their roles any more seriously by the start of the show’s next run in August. Recent reviews have painted the show as “deliriously absurd and haunting,” and an “uncategorizable delight.”

King Lear With Sheep is essentially a one-man show carried off with aplomb. As the director flails and shouts and desperately attempts to herd his cast into some semblance of Shakespearean order, the audience witnesses a descent into insanity that is intended to mirror King Lear’s own fate. The success of his portrayal will be up to audiences to decide, but the show can guarantee at least one thing: “Sheep! In tiny costumes!

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
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Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
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Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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