Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, notable partly for the creative license he takes with his telling of the War of the Roses. The story follows its title character through his multiple machinations on the way to the throne, and eventually (SPOILER ALERT) his grave (Dun dun DUUUUUNNNN!). Along the way he has a hand in murdering pretty much every relative he can get his hands on, betraying even those who stood beside him, and finally ending up alone, crying out famously for a horse that might bear him out of the fate he manufactured for himself. This particular Richard III is set in "a messy, technological jungle, at once familiar and distant, a foreboding dystopia in scope" in which "gender fluidity comes to the forefront" and old biases linger despite the ostensible success of gender-identity civil rights battles.
Now, let me be clear – when I talk about the concept, I’m not complaining about Richard being played by a woman (PNT Associate Artistic Director Carla Milarch). They actually managed to highlight enough instances on the script dealing with the weakness of the character’s effeminacy, that I ended up being on board with that. Rather than the traditional limp or hunchback, her "deformity" was not being born a man. Fairly offered. My problems, unfortunately, boil down to a fundamental disagreement with the play's direction, helmed by Julia Glander. Trying to make this a play ABOUT gender fluidity means having to impose a lot of meaning onto the text that just isn't there, and, it seems, ignoring some other things that are in the text. To make a heavy concept like this work, we needed to know a lot more about this world - we needed more consistency in the characters, who generally felt like they were each stuck, free floating alone in their own play. (The incomprehensible character of Mistress Shore, for example, seemed to be played in drag simply to say, "Look! Gender is fluid!" rather than to tell us anything about the character or her place in the world.) The tone of the show is, almost unilaterally, inappropriate to the story being told. The stakes are too low for people facing imprisonment, beheading, forced marriage, war, child murder and the like. Preferring gags to gravity (Frozen and The Princess Bride references may have brought some chuckles in rehearsal, but they rip us right out of the performance), Glander's production trips about, over and through the corpses with no real sense of importance or consequences. Anne is led off to marry a monster, but we can't feel for her because we already watched her hugging and comforting him. Margaret is treated as a fool rather than a madwoman (two wildly different Shakespearean archetypes), which makes her curses and portents lose all sense of foreboding. And the final battle, true to the two and a half hours that precedes it, is utterly anti-climactic. All in all, it felt like a play directed by someone who was not interested in telling the story the playwright had given her.
By far the strongest performance in the cast is delivered by Drew Parker as the Duke of Clarence and Lord Stanley. His melodious voice deftly navigates the language with confidence, and he is mesmerizing as he recounts his dream. But even he falls victim to the laissez faire world, giggling his way to the Tower of London and making chit-chat up until the moment of his death (at the hands of two men who would absolutely never have been able to overpower him the way they do). John Seibert is intriguing as Queen Margaret (another bit of gender bending that worked pretty well for me) - this character, though misdirected, ushers in one of the first appearances of appropriately high stakes into the play. And he's sort of adorable as the bumbling Lord Mayor. Brian Sage has some genuinely interesting moments as Richard's co-conspirator the Duke of Buckingham. He's particularly good in the second act when playing to the public outside Richard's window. However, his defection from Richard's posse shares his castmates' problem with low stakes. Francisco Fiori as the Young Duke of York brings a great shot of youth to the proceedings, and is a breath of fresh air. Alysia Kolascz and Logan Ricket are solid as Hastings and Catesby respectively, though neither escapes from the general haze hanging over the cast's collective energy. Kolascz does step up quite a bit in her second incarnation as the conquering Richmond, bringing some much needed power to the opposition. Janet Haley and Terry Heck as Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York seem both to be fighting an uphill battle - both show the signs of being excellent performers, but neither manages to find a consistent through-line to her character that could communicate the true depth of their personal tragedies. Jonathan West has some nice variety in his performances as the ailing King Edward IV and Sir James Tyrrel, though there is occasionally something a little too presentational about his greasy evilness as Tyrrel. Joanna Bronson as Lady Anne is insular and wooden, making her come off at most as uninterested rather than the enraged, passionate noble woman she should have been. Jason Tomalia and Justin Dietzel are so overly cartoonish as the two murderers that they provide no menace and simply don't end up belonging in this world. And Carla Milarch throws herself fully into her frustrated, male-identified incarnation of Richard. She is convincing in terms of the gender fluidity that is at the center of this interpretation, but her delivery usually ends up being too one-note to fully convey Richard's delicious duplicity, often substituting speedy delivery for conscientious communication of the words and ideas.
One truly redeeming element of this generally misguided production is Monika Essen's dynamic set design. Somehow simultaneously cluttered and open, it gives us a lot to look at, the actors plenty of places to play, and provides an engaging vision of the dystopian world. Daniel C. Walker's lighting design is serviceable - sometimes creating truly rich stage pictures, sometimes leaving us too much in the dark. Will Myers's sound design is intrusive and jarring, forcing itself on top of key moments rather than supporting them. And Katherine Nelson's costume design, though it places us loosely in "dystopia," does little to communicate character, allegiances or theme (though I do think her treatment of Richard is spot on for the direction they have chosen).
When I come into a theatre at the beginning of the evening, my sincere hope is always that I will enjoy the show, and the sad truth is, that can't always happen. So now, having had an evening of theatre that I unfortunately did not enjoy, my sincere hope is that other audience members will go and will disagree with me. This may be the winter of MY discontent, so here's hoping you find some of that glorious summer instead.
Richard III by William Shakespeare (Director: Julia Glander) continues at The Performance Network through June 1. Tickets range from $27-$46. For more information, visit http://www.performancenetwork.org/.