Why is it that when it comes to Shakespeare, we too often expect a definitive production and/or performance? That should never be your goal as a theatergoer, and it probably shouldn't be the aim of any actor or director. If it happens and you were there to witness it, consider yourself lucky.
If anything, we should celebrate productions with a clear vision from a director who doesn't overthink, attempt deconstruction or get carried away with oddball whims. When that vision is ably met by the actors and designers, consider it a success.
So chalk one up for Richard III at Oklahoma City's Reduxion Theatre Company, a group in its fifth season that revels in looking at the classics in fresh ways. When it comes to Shakespeare, artistic director Tyler Woods writes in his director's notes that he tends to choose 20th century settings, because "the period of upheaval and social change that filled those 100 years is ripe with the fruits of human struggle and triumph, tragedy and comedy" that make Shakespeare's plays so eternal.
For this Richard III, the setting is the Weimar Republic in Germany, after the first World War and leading up to the rise of Hitler, Nazi Germany and World War II. It's a fitting transplant, considering that Shakespeare's character of Richard was profoundly ambitious and egotistical, and thoroughly evil. A link to that nefarious historical character of Nazi Germany is intended, but only as referenced in this setting, with a few visual clues in costuming.
Woods has sense enough not to have the actor in the title role, Washington, D.C.-based Rex Daugherty, look like that man with the distinctive haircut and mustache. Enough of a parallel is created.
There are hallmarks of Reduxion shows, I'm told, and one of them is live music. Considering that this is Weimar era, you might expect something on the Cabaret side. There is an evocation of that, with an Emcee-esque keyboardist, but most of the music is more contemporary. For instance, the cast enters singing the lines of a song that you eventually make out to be "Land of Confusion" by Genesis. Later on, as Richard has begun his ruthless ascension to the throne, they sing the song "Circus Apocalypse" by the "circus cabaret" group Vermillion Lies. The lyrics, which urge you to "come down and join the circus," aren't too far removed, thematically, from the title song in Cabaret.
[Here's the original version by Vermillion Lies:]
The song that closes the nearly three-hour production ends with the cast singing these lyrics, a cappella:
That's it, sir / You're leaving / The crackle of pigskin / The dust and the screaming / The yuppies networking / The panic, the vomit / The panic, the vomit / God loves his children / God loves his children, yeah!
That's the Radiohead song "Paranoid Android," with the cast vocally punching words like "screaming," "panic" and "vomit," all results you might have from this play about a scheming man with ruthless, Machiavellian ambition.
Other smart facets in Woods' production include the eventual addition of red arm bands on the characters on Richard's side; but instead of a swastika, they're emblazoned with a rose. (The terrific costumes are by Lloyd Cracknell, who especially excels with Lady Anne's dresses). And to echo the craziness of political elections, as Richard is rising, the electioneering includes goodies passed out to the audience, such as buttons with a clever, double-entendre slogan.
But lest you think this sounds gimmicky, the production keeps the focus on storytelling, with a cast that speaks the Bard's poetry with clarity and conviction. And interestingly, of the nearly 50 roles in the play, Woods has cast all but one of them (most of the dozen actors play multiple roles). The one role not cast has just one line, and for this, Woods calls on a volunteer from the audience before the show (this person is given the line and cue).
That's part of the interactivity of the production, which is well-served by Reduxion's small, in-the-round space, with about 50 seats (which are quite comfortable, by the way). It makes for in-your-face Shakespeare—a welcome change from the distant experience we often get in large theaters, both in and out of doors. The intimacy also lends legitimate creeps during the nicely conceived ghost scene near the play's end.
Jeremy Lister makes each of his six roles distinctive, and avoids the inclination to give too much away as the allegiance-shifting Duke of Clarence, who's an early casualty. Suzanne Stanley is another standout as Lady Anne, with glassy eyes and believable chemistry with Richard, even if she's just a pawn in his plan. In fact, all of the women in this cast—Cristela Carrizales (Queen Margaret), Jessa Schinske (Marquis of Dorset, Prince Edward), Kris Schinske (Queen Elizabeth), Jennifer Casteel (Duchess of York) and Sue Ellen Reiman (Lady Hastins, Sir James Blunt)—are particularly strong.
Richard III was famously deformed, and here, instead of a hunchback, he has a dead arm that's strapped to his waist, plus a slight limp. Daugherty, cunning and charming when the character calls for either, brims with an important trait of any Machiavel: His intellect drives the ambition, and in this case, the acts of tragic violence. While his slight stature and his deformity aren't physically intimidating, his hunger for power is evident. He not only craves it and believes that he deserves it; he knows he will have it.
Like this production, his portrayal might not be definitive, but it's definitely successful, not to mention riveting. Within the parameters of Woods' overall vision, it's spot-on.
If you're visiting family in the Oklahoma City area for Thanksgiving, be sure and look up this group and check out their Richard III. In the spring, the group's season features another Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, and an adaptation of the novel The History of Tom Jones.
I can't wait to get to know this company more.