BWW Reviews: Richard III: Born with Teeth
After 528 years, England's King Richard III is back in the headlines thanks to the discovery of his skeleton beneath a parking lot in Leicester. And with the increased interest come the inevitable revivals and adaptations of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard III, one of the Bard's more controversial plays. (Go look up the Richard III society for more details on that issue.) The first of these adaptations is Epic Theater Ensemble's Richard III: Born with Teeth, set in contemporary times and with a decidedly American sensibility.
The new script also incorporates scenes from Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy to offer some backstory to the narrative, explaining how all of the characters came to be where they are (the details of which would have been well-known to Shakespeare's audience). By setting the play in modern day America (or at least by giving the characters contemporary clothing and American accents), the story of greed, treachery, corruption and seduction becomes immediate and painfully recognizable: The men wear business suits that would not seem out of place in a CEO or politician's office, and while their battles are nominally for political control of England in the 1480s, they could just as easily be for control of a corporation or a valuable family inheritance. Greed, treachery, corruption and seduction are universal, the play seems to say, and the struggle for power is the same in any century.
But while the play's themes are timeless, any adaptation needs a unifying vision (consider, for example, Ian McKellen's 1930s fascism take on the play), and that's what seems to be lacking in Born with Teeth. As the play begins, audience members can get cocktails and talk with the cast members (in character). It's a fun way to begin the show, and sets a decidedly lighthearted mood to balance the darkness that will be coming later...but there doesn't seem to be a particular reason for this interaction, or for director (and Epic's Executive Director) Ron Russell to have the actors move through the audience for several scenes. A fourth wall isn't always necessary, but if the audience is meant to be a silent conspirator to Richard's crimes, there should be consistency in what scenes take place beyond the proscenium. And by limiting the (even for Shakespeare) very large number of characters to a cast of 10, Russell makes it occasionally difficult to keep track of who is whom in any given scene.
Fortunately, the cast is very strong, and those playing multiple roles do very nice work in making each character distinct. Epic co-founder James Wallert makes a fine Richard: Smooth, seductive, charming and calculating. When he woos Lady Anne Neville (Carra Patterson, fragile and sympathetic), it is easy to see why she would succumb to his lies. Like the best politicians, he knows how to be intimidating while seeming friendly, and he conveys pure sincerity even when we know he's lying. Best of all, he has great fun with the role, and his glee is absolutely contagious. Co-founder Melissa Friedman is a poignant and regal Queen Elizabeth, and her scene with Margaret (an underused Lanna Joffrey) is a highlight of the play.
Margaret E. Weedon's costumes are also effective, dressing the Yorkist characters in shades of white and cream and light grey (a nod to the white rose of York) while Margaret, the lone Lancastrian, wears mourning black and red: the color of the rose of Lancaster. Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams has created a very nice multileveled set, but Russell rarely takes advantage of the different tiers to indicate the ever-shifting power dynamics. When he does, however, we see how strong the play could have been, and what it could be with a bit of tightening.