Thursday, October 11, 2012

William Shakespeare’s King Richard III at Harlequin

Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Can it possibly be that a play written at the end of the 16th century can be ahead of its time in 2012 — so avant garde as to leave audience members unsure as to whether or not they actually enjoyed it? . Or is that just my take on it?

Harlequin Productions’ King Richard III mixes settings and costumes of ambiguous time periods (reminiscent of the Alan Rudolph film “Trouble in Mind”) with harsh realism and surrealistic abstraction to create a strangely mesmerizing performance that I greatly admired even though I cannot honestly say I enjoyed it.

An annotation in the program by Linda Whitney begins with “The 500 years that buffer us from the world of England’s King Richard III is a lens that magnifies our view of him into a villain of hugely grotesque and dramatic proportions.” The symbolic and highly theatrical elements in this production along with the horribly quasi-humorous murder scenes serve as a magnifying glass trained on the bloodthirsty king. 

Highly inventive from the very start, the surrealism is manifest even before the play begins as strange mad scientists in white lab coats and face masks walk onto the dark and foreboding set and stand perfectly still with weapons in hand while audience members take their seats. While these creatures remain on set the curtain speech is offered up in the form of a projection with an animated bust of William Shakespeare warning audience members to turn off their cell phones. Whoever put it together is not credited in the program but certainly deserves recognition. It is one of the more enjoyable and imaginative curtain speeches I’ve heard.

The lights go down and the not-yet king Richard (Daniel Flint) lumbers on stage wearing black leather and chains and a long black trench coat, a heavy brace on one leg. He utters the oft-quoted opening line:
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York…

With his long hair, his clumping leg and commanding presence, Flint is an ideal choice to play the brutal, murderous king.

It would be easy to say this is a modern version of King Richard III, but to say it is timeless or perhaps even futuristic would be more accurate. I’ve already described Richard’s clothing (costuming by Samantha Armitage). He can be seen as a biker — shades of the recent Theater Artists Olympia production of Titus Andronicus — or as a creature akin to Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. He stands out as a singular figure in that no one else in the cast is similarly costumed. The rest of the men are dressed in business attire from the 19th or early 20th centuries except for one scene in which town aldermen appear dressed like newsboys in 1929. The women, when not in military uniforms, are wearing dresses from an era closer to when the play was historically set. And then there are Richard’s minions, the doctors or mad scientists in their white lab coats who carry out the many murders Richard orders. All of these odd and creative costuming choices, along with Linda Whitney’s wonderfully dark and heavy set and Mark Thomason’s dramatic lighting — lots of blood red in the darkness — add immeasurably to the moodiness of the scenes.

All of this darkness is punctuated with a lot of comedy, both in Shakespeare’s pun-heavy word usage and in the uniqueness of the many murders. The methods of murder — at least some of them, and I don’t want to give away too much — are borrowed from such sources as Fargo and No Country for Old Men. They are simultaneously shocking, horrifying and funny.

The cast is very large. Among the outstanding cast members are Russ Holm as Hastings, Ryan Holmberg as Rivers and Tyrrell, Frank Lawler as Buckingham, Dennis Rolly as Clarence, and Kathryn Philbrook in multiple roles. Rolly is particularly outstanding in the nightmare scene leading up to his murder, and Holmberg plays a villainous circus strongman to wonderfully comic excess. 

It may be nit-picky, but the one thing that bothered me was the use of characters entering and speaking their lines from the aisles, especially the scene with the mayor and aldermen. They should have been on stage where they would not be taken out of the action and where the audience wouldn’t have to crane their necks to see them. 

Also deserving of special note is sound designer, Don Littrell.

I noted that some folks left at the intermission which could have been because they were expecting a more traditional Shakespeare play. They missed the second half of this interesting and intentionally disquieting production.

WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays, 8p.m., Sundays 2 p.m. through Oct. 27
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. 4th Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: prices vary, call for details
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151;

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