They astounded us early last year with their fantastic mega event BRING DOWN THE HOUSE, which combined Shakespeare’s three part Henry VI trilogy into a two part theatrical experience that covered 50+ years of British history (heavily fictionalized by Shakespeare however) and the battle for the English crown between the Houses of York and Lancaster. That production ends with the House of York victorious and the crowning of King Edward IV as well as the lurking presence of his brother Richard who vows to eventually snatch the crown for himself.
Now, the production team behind Bring Down The House, the all female upstart crow collective (lowercase deliberate) and Seattle Shakespeare Company return to pick up that story with RICHARD III their just opened “sequel” that charts the rise of the dastardly Richard and his ultimate demise which leads to the rise of the House of Tudor and the end of the multi-generational War of the Roses, between York and Lancaster.
Much of the BDTH team returns including director and upstart crow co-founder Rosa Joshi as well as much of the acting ensemble including Sarah Hartlett reprising her role as Richard but stepping into the spotlight as the leading actor. And, not surprisingly, Richard III lives up to the promise of the earlier work…this Richard III is a dazzling theater tour de force with bold and superbly inventive staging by Ms Joshi as well as clever and innovative design and a superb ensemble of female actors led by Ms Hartlett’s deliciously complicated performance as the villainous Richard. It’s a ripe and passionate night of theater bravado and since last year’s Bring Down The House was a huge success, it’s highly likely that tickets for Richard III might become tough to get (I’ve already heard rumors it’s selling very well) so it probably behooves you to snatch tickets now as opposed to later. You wouldn’t want to miss this theatrical event.
All that gushing aside, I suppose it behooves me to be specific but if you’re looking for a hyper specific synopsis, go read the Wikipedia entry. In a nutshell, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester as the play opens, quickly makes it plain he plans to usurp his oldest brother, the current king, Edward IV and his other brother, George the Duke of Clarence AND anyone else who stands between him and the throne he covets. Richard quickly organizes to pit rivals against rivals, to do his dirty work for him, as well as snagging a useful wife, Anne, to up his own standing in court. Over the next few years/acts of the play, Richard dispatches everyone in his way including young children, and snags the throne…briefly before being taken down by Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, at the Battle of Bosworth Field which begins the Tudor Dynasty, sadly not much covered by Shakespeare. As for poor old Richard, he’s so reviled his body was hastily buried and is apparently lost to the ages until it was discovered in 2012 under a parking lot in Leicester.
As for specifics about the wonders of this production, let us go over them:
Again, razor sharp staging by Rosa Joshi aided by the movement director Alice Gosti and fight choreography by Peter Dylan O’Conner. The opening itself is a stunner with Richard being physically manipulated by the other actors, like a puppet and emphasizing Richard’s famous physical deformities (a twisted spine/hump and crippled arm). There’s also a splendid through line of the staging of the executions with choreographed movements and the use of stage rigging and lighting cues.
There’s also Ms Joshi’s handling of the script and in particular, bringing out the humor within the text. There are several very funny sequences in this Richard III, many of them on the morbid side (the infamous murder of the Duke of Clarence with a nervous executioner hesitating before the slaughter being a prime example). There’s also the sequence involving Richard and his chief minister Buckingham staging a pious photo opp for the benefit of the masses, to appease them and to falsely portray him in a noble light. All very well directed and acted as well as quite topical in our days of living under our own twisted despot…
Not to mention a glorious design scheme for the entire production from Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s deceptively “simple” scenic design consisting of metal cables anchored to the floor then rising at an angle up into the flies and the use of the cables for the many onstage executions as well as being used as musical instruments for the stark and haunting sound design created by Meghan Roche and Robertson Wimmer (and performed by cast members and musician Aimee Zoe specifically). PLUS the evocative lighting, including the use of handheld lighting instruments, all designed by Geoff Korf. And, the handsome, highly textured costumes in varying shades of black/grey and designed by Christine Tschirgi. Gorgeous designs that all interconnect with one another and the tone of this production.
Acting wise, it’s a triumph as well (not surprisingly) with a perfectly cast ensemble of strong actors. They’re all quite good with highlights being Mari Nelson being noble as the “queen mum” Duchess of York but also hilariously menacing as one of the murderers. And, Kate Wisniewski as a weak willed Bishop Ely but primarily as the vindictive curse layer, the former Queen Margaret wishing doom on those who brought her down. Plus, the delight of seeing Suzanne Bouchard getting to play conniving for once, as Richard’s chief minister Buckingham. All delight in a number of roles varying from major to spear carrying.
But, the show belongs to Ms Hartlett, once again reprising the Richard she played so well in Bring Down The House. And, she’s made it her own, and not just for the fact she’s playing a male role. Eschewing more traditional portrayals of Richard, there’s little attempt to play all of Richard’s perceived and much exaggerated physical maladies…there’s no hump or speech impediment. There’s a hint of limp and a crippled arm but all the silly variety hall schtick isn’t needed here. No need to portray Richard as a cross between Severus Snape and Quasimodo with a hint of Dick Dastardly. Ms Hartlett plays Richard as slyly cunning and quite intelligent; a mastermind of plotting and outwitting his opponents with clever wordplay and the manipulation of one side against another. It’s a richly political performance, theatrical yet grounded in real world political machinations. In other words, Sarah Hartlett gives a masterful performance that you’d be foolish to miss.
So, two things are quite clear. You really should see this Richard III.
Seattle Shakespeare needs to partner up with upstart crow collective at least once a year. It’s a vital infusion of great feminine energy that gives a much needed shot of artistic adrenaline to the Seattle Shakespeare Company’s season.
(Oh…here’s a not so subtle suggestion, Seattle Shakes: partner up with upstart crow to do Mike Poulton’s theatrical adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Parts I and II. It’s the story of Henry VIII and one of his chief ministers,Thomas Cromwell during the Anne Boleyn years. It’s right up your alleys. DO IT!!!!)