Dallas — Large fire cauldrons crackle, smoke, and throw off a bit of much-needed heat on a chilly night. Benches, picnic tables, and lawn chairs mark off a long, rectangular open space behind a pub. A sizeable crowd—for a Monday night—is abuzz with anticipation not for a concert, or a new beer release, but for a “barely rehearsed” rendition of a Shakespeare history play.
Richard III is the play, Shakespeare in the Bar (SITB) is the company producing it, and the “bar” for this final performance is Small Brewpub in Oak Cliff (the first took place at The Wild Detectives, where the photos with this review were taken). Richard marks the fifth play for this group of passionate theater artists whose goal has been to produce great works in non-conventional theater venues with the simple recipe of “One part great actors. One part great plays. Hold the rehearsals. Stir.”
SITB has had great success with their previous productions—all crowd-pleasing comedies. However, would a history play that barely anyone knows (other than the brilliant 1995 Ian McKellen version) work?
Shakespeare wrote his tale about Richard early in his career (1592-3) when he was still breaking free of Christopher Marlowe’s daunting influence. It is the first of the great dramas the Bard would write and it contains a character who is larger than the entire play. Richard III is still a bit juvenile but it has flashes of brilliance that Shakespeare would soon fulfill.
The story is dead simple to follow because Richard leads us every step of the way. It is not subtle like, say, Macbeth. Instead, Richard is a character-driven drama, and really only one outsized personality is important. SITB is fortunate to have Brandon Potter as the eponymous villain. The character of Richard is intelligent, fiercely ambitious, cynical, sociopathic, and possesses a fatally suspicious imagination. He is a grotesque and deformed figure who must be terrifying yet seduce all, especially the audience.
A powerful and charming Richard is required to redeem an otherwise average play. Potter’s prodigious gifts for embodying the character and connecting with the crowd sends the drama soaring. Another incredible standout is SITB newcomer Jenny Ledel as Queen Elizabeth. She is beyond fierce in her floor-length fur vest. Ivan Jasso’s James Tyrell/ Murderer was a surprising (for this role anyway) comedic delight.
Other strong performances in a show full of them are Mikaela Krantz’s spunky Lady Anne, an always hilarious Marcus Stimac as Lord Richmond, and the stalwart Ryan Glenn as Lord Mayor of London. The fact that these actors can pull off these roles in only three or fewer performances is remarkable.
Musicians Ray Henninger, Robert Trusko, Jacob Metcalf, and Alex Weaver provide the tunes (opening the show with the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” is a nice touch). There are not directors per se, but Dylan Key, one of the founders of SITB, stages, fixes, and oversees a bit, leaving many of the choices to the actors. Jeff Colangelo handles the stage combat. This format allows the actors to get away with more than you’d see in a more traditional Shakespeare staging—for instance, several employ wild accents from all over the place, including the yet-to-be-founded America (a Southern preacher, a New Yawk Jewish lady, etc.).
Of course, with SITB the play is not always the thing. The experience for everybody involved is what makes these events. Free-flowing beverages (if an actor calls "line," everyone drinks), tasty food (a piping hot, stick-to-your-ribs potato soup in this case), the crisp night air, and the liberty for the actors to take chances and relish their work, and for the audience to relax and allow themselves to take in the language and laugh at the jokes, removing the fear of Shakespeare make for a party atmosphere that entertains and secretly educates.
I’ll drink to that.