Brave Spirits Theatre plays dress-up in this jaunty production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, staged minimally with a cast of ten in the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Lab Theater. With sparse lighting and no set other than a bench, Brave Spirits nevertheless succeed in conveying the poisonous hubbub of the Plantagenet court thanks to crisp blocking and strong character acting. The production’s no-nonsense faithfulness to the text is also a treat for Shakespeare traditionalists.
Entering the space, audiences find the floor strewn with clothes. Winter coats, suit jackets, and polo shirts lie on a makeshift battlefield. Two paint buckets bristle with sharp-looking axes, swords, and daggers. At center rests a crown. The War of the Roses has just ended, and reign over England and Wales rests finally in Edward IV’s feeble hands. Most at court are relieved to see peace, but the king’s youngest brother, the hunchback Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Travis Blumer), sees opportunity for self-advancement at the minor cost of blood and sorrow for his whole family.
Without a flashy set or costumes, the production is refreshingly rudimentary in its use of anything at hand. Ties over T-shirts imply nobility, and a clenched biker’s glove is a subtle reminder of Richard’s physical and moral deformities. Roars of battles, the bustle of court, and ghostly wailing all come directly from actors’ voices and a drum. Director Charlene V. Smith shows what the play might have felt like in its original era, staged without the aid of hi-tech effects. The effect is a playful, actor-driven production that keeps its emphasis on the script.
This fealty to the text is the production’s sharp point. Founded in 2011, Brave Spirits swear to be “unabashedly obsessed with language” as they bring energetic productions of early modern plays to the DC area. With Richard III, they deliver on this aim. Smith cut only three of the show’s 52 speaking roles, and her ten cast members split the remaining 49 with relish. Only Travis Blumer (Richard) keeps a single part. The rest of the cast zip on and offstage in a carnival of quick changes, presenting a host of lords, ladies, and other accessories to Richard’s machinations.
In this bustle for the basics, however, some of the play’s most savory nuances come out bland. While the gestural costumes and staging are accessible, some of the acting comes across as shallow. Blumer’s Richard is more cartoonish than convincing. As he limps around the stage snarling and smirking, he falls short in conjuring any of the dark charisma behind the bloody tyrant’s short reign. In the scene where he seduces Lady Anne (Victoria Reinsel) beside the yet-unburied corpse of her late husband, whom he murdered, we’re never asked to seriously consider the outrage of his proposal. “What though I kill’d her husband and her father?” is presented as an easy joke, and Anne goes from wailing widow to smokily seduced with no buildup or warning.
Without leaving audiences time to puzzle this change, Reinsel skips back on in seconds, this time playing Rivers. Similarly, the murder of Clarence (Jenna Berk) also suffers from tonal indecision. His assassins’ (Rachel Hynes, Bess Kaye) slapstick is amusing in their approach, but their guffaws as he entreats them for his life, a serious and touching monologue, ring hollow.
On the other hand, Jessica Lefkow’s four characters strike the needed balance between briskness and precision. Her vocal skills and fearless physicality make her roles instantly identifiable to an audience without other aids, and her acting adds depth wherever possible. Whether she’s spitting curses in a tattered leather coat as Margaret, quaking in the background as the afeared Archbishop of York, tottering as the ailing King Edward IV, or stomping around in combat boots as Richmond, Lefkow lights the stage without any technical tricks. Margaret’s “I had an Edward, till a Richard kill’d him” speech is the emotional highlight of the play. George Grant’s Buckingham, meanwhile, is a welcome foil to Richard’s blustery nastiness. He’s slick and cool, and his greedy blindness to Richard’s treacherous tendencies serves as a marching banner for the King’s posse of murderers and sycophants.
Overall, the show is accessible and fun to watch. Smith’s precise staging leaves audiences free to enjoy the writing, and the show’s clever ferris wheel of props and toys spotlights a host of minor characters with a lot of personality. Audiences won’t find the gritty naturalism invited by the play’s emotional violence, or the opulence boasted by expensive productions, but they will meet an energetic troupe of storytellers eager to bring Shakespeare’s war story to life.
Brave Spirits Theatre‘s production of Richard III runs thru July 7, 2012 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE Washington, DC.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Charlene V. Smith
Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Duffley
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.
- Eric Minton . Shakespeareances