By Patrick Hurley
Richard III, Shakespeare’s history play about political posturing, manipulation, greed, and power that ultimately led to the end of the war of the roses is playing now through August 30 at the Eclectic Theatre Company.
After a civil war between the house of York and the house of Lancaster, King Edward (Tim Polzin) has brought some civil rest during his rule. However Edward’s younger brother Richard (Jon Mullich) is resentful of his brother’s success and happiness. Embittered by the need for political power, which is perhaps heightened by his physical deformities, Richard devises a scheme to take the throne.
His manipulations include convincing a noble woman, Lady Anne (Rachel Kanouse), into marrying him, even though she knows that he murdered her first husband. He then has his older brother Clarence (David Pinion) executed, and has King Edward blamed for it. Then, when the king dies, Richard becomes lord protector of England. Which means he’s in charge until one of Edward’s young sons comes of age. So, during this time Richard arranges for the deaths of the boys relatives on their mother’s side, anyone close enough to protect the young princes. He then beheads Lord Hastings (Melody Doyle), the lord chamberlain of England who had sworn allegiance to the princes. And then at just the right moment, Richard and his right-hand man Buckingham (Jesse Merlin) win the crown for Richard. After he becomes King, Richard imprisons and murders both young princes, in what is perhaps his most upsetting and villainous move. His thirst for power never ceases. You know how those Shakespearean villains are. And before long, Richard is properly feared and loathed by the people that he so duplicitously fought to rule.
One of the most intriguing of all of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III is perhaps also one of the trickiest to stage. As is the case with any well-known drama, there is a certain expectation that one has when sitting down to a classic such as this, and unfortunately this production doesn’t have a firm enough grasp of the material to pull the audience into the world of the play. Instead it relies on histrionics, hysterics, and flat staging. In short, it loses control of the narrative. There are moments where the beauty of the language is completely assaulted by an actor screeching a monologue. There were at least three monologues in the first half of this play that were recited entirely through hysterical sobbing, and the natural reaction to this, as an audience member, should be to simply stop listening.
The set was simple, aiming for efficiency, though the elevated side pieces were a bit unnecessary. Most of the time the actors are just awfully close to the ceiling. The reason for the 1920s and 30s costumes is a mystery. With a blank set made up of uniformly colored platforms the need to add a specific era with the costumes is a distraction. It doesn’t add anything to the production. It only makes the whole disjointed affair even more so. Equally confounding was what this production does with the character of Hastings (Melody Doyle) They cast a woman in the role, which is not the issue, in fact, quite the opposite, however they then changed all of the pronouns to “her” and “she,” and yet dressed her in men’s clothing, and still called her “Lord”. Allowing a woman to gender-swap is a simple thing, one that many productions have done before, but somehow this show makes even that confusing.
Director Natasha Troop goes for melodrama over subtlety every time. She directs emotions and language over dramatic action. There is always subtext in Shakespeare. Characters are not simply crying over the death of a loved one, they are plotting, scheming, positioning themselves. When you fail to see what’s underneath the language, you have actors who are reciting text only, and that leaves them playing the words rather than the intentions. This is easy to do with Shakespeare because the language is so beautiful. Thus the great challenge of staging such brilliant work. This production, unfortunately, attacks the text and ignores most of the subtext, and the result is a collection of actors who all seem to be appearing in different shows. There’s a drunken character who seems to be in a sketch comedy show, A proper sounding British gentleman right out of Downton Abbey, a woman all decked in fringe who could be selling cigars in a speakeasy in the 1920s, and then there’s the sobbing and screaming widows who play like the real housewives of York. The flow of the language is stifled by the overzealous intent on getting the emotion out of the moment rather than the underlying tactic that propels Shakespearean, and indeed all drama. If the emotions were scaled back from hysterical to a tactic more palpable, or at least convincingly playable, the show might have worked. As it stands, it’s an example of what Shakespeare looks like when you play the language rather than the actions. Slightly out of control, and completely out of our reach.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Natasha Troop
July 24-August 30
Fri, Sat 8PM
The Eclectic Company Theatre
5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd.
Valley Village, CA 91607