NextStop Theatre Company’s production Richard III is a rare instance where the operation is a failure, but the patient lives. Look, Shakespeare’s comedies and dramas offer a fertile field for the artistic imagination, and are constantly reinvented and reimagined. I loved WSC Avant Bard’s nude Macbeth; Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Hamlet, in which the title character is a spoiled adolescent; and Folger’s shoot-‘em-up Taming of the Shrew. I am not a big fan of Synetic’s wordless Shakespeares, like their recent Twelfth Night, but many people are, and for understandable reasons.
The histories, however, are another story. The characters are who they are, not who we imagine them to be. Thus, for example, the historical Richard III was hunchbacked, not mute, and NextStop does violence both to the text and to history by saying otherwise.
“[M]y interest in exploring a world where Richard is Deaf comes not only from a long and life changing relationship with the Deaf community and culture, but from an interest in exploring a world where a perceived disability drives expectations,” Director Lindsey Snyder says in the program notes to explain her approach. “Not only the expectations of society on an individual, but the expectations of an individual of himself.”
I do not know what this means. In the Richard III which Shakespeare wrote, expectations of Richard were largely driven by two factors: (a) he was not the lawful king of England and (b) he was a son of a bitch. His disability meant nothing to those around him, except as decoration for their contempt for him, and nothing to him, except as a self-pitying explanation for the hatred he experienced from others.
Likewise in Dr. Snyder’s reimagining, Richard’s muteness does not drive expectations or affect decision-making. Richard, played by the fine actor Ethan Sinnott, is at all times attended by his co-conspirator Buckingham (Sun King Davis) or by the murderous Catesby (Ben Laurer), each of whom vocalizes what Richard signifies in American Sign Language. When Richard soliloquizes, his words are delivered by Daniel Corey – who eventually appears as Richmond – behind a semi-opaque glass. (JD Madsen is responsible for an excellent set). The fact that Richard cannot vocalize is in no way a handicap to his treasonous schemes; he has superb command of ASL, for those who understand it, and the assistance of eager minions to vocalize his thoughts and commands, for those who do not. And Richard’s subjects and camp followers react to him with terrified acquiescence, regardless of the fact that he signs his commands and disposition, rather than voicing them.
The fact that the text Shakespeare gives to Richard is not spoken by Richard does not work to the King’s disadvantage, but it does to the play’s. In those scenes when Richard and Buckingham are alone – and there are plenty of them – Buckingham must either vocalize Richard’s lines (something he would never do in real life) as well as his own, or else be silent as Richard speaks, leaving the audience to catch Richard’s meaning by inference. As the Bard conveyed so much of the play’s complex action and motivation in Richard’s lines this is not always possible.
And the actors are not always able to separate their roles as Richard’s vocalizer from the roles Shakespeare assigned to them. When Buckingham and Catesby eventually turn on Richard, he must rely on Mr. Corey – now playing his dread enemy Richmond (soon to become King Henry VII) – to utter the text Shakespeare gives to Richard. So, for example, Mr. Corey must leave the tent where Richmond is sleeping and stand next to Richard’s tent to verbalize the King’s tortured nightmare. You will be able to figure it out, but every moment spent saying “oh, now I get it” is a moment spent out of the fictive dream.
The doubling of roles in this production also causes some difficulties. I recognize that actors in Richard III must play multiple roles; there are twenty-four characters in the play and only the most elaborately funded companies can fill them all with separate actors. But it is a delicate art, and the director must avoid confusion at all costs. Confusion is not always avoided here. In particular, the distinctive-looking actor Bill Fleming is cast as Richard’s brother, King Edward IV (misidentified in the program as Edward III); the jailer Brackenbury; Richard’s enemy Rivers; and Cardinal Ely. So, for example, ten seconds after Edward dies (no spoiler alert needed; they’re all dead by now) Mr. Fleming emerges from behind the curtain, and it takes a few minutes to realize that he is now Rivers, and not the King’s ghost. There are similar confusions throughout.
Well, enough whining and complaining. Let’s talk about what works in this production – and plenty works, believe me. There is an advantage to having Richard played twice – once in spoken word and once in ASL – and it’s this: Shakespeare’s Richard is a man with a double heart. On the outside, he is all honeyed words and graciousness, but on the inside he is a cauldron of greed, need and rage. Not every actor can pull this off, but here the vocalizers – particularly the superb Davis – give us the smooth and loving Richard, and Sinnott, whose ASL pops with explosiveness and whose face is wreathed in contempt when it is not full of longing and desperation, gives us Richard as he really is. The payoff is that we come to understand how hard it was for Richard to be two people at once.
There are some extremely clever and knowing directorial touches, such as when Buckingham struggles to interpret Richard’s wishes as he turns from Buckingham and signs out to us – or when the simpering sycophant Hastings (Zack Brewster-Geisz) speaks loudly and slowly for Richard’s benefit, despite the fact that Richard is obviously totally deaf and can easily read lips without Hastings’ folderol.
Closes February 23, 2014
NextStop Theatre at
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $27
Thursdays thru Sundays
Production values are high, and the close-quarter fight between Richard and Richmond which Casey Kaleba stages is excellent.
Richard III is at bottom a propaganda play, which Shakespeare used to vilify the last Plantagenet King and thus legitimize the House of Tudor, which Richmond began. Therefore he has written Richard to be Satan Incarnate, and everyone else (except Richmond) to be his victim. After every one of Richard’s many murders, there is much weeping and wailing, the extremity of which can be tedious; the actors here do not go over the top, and save the pathos from turning into bathos. Corey plays Richmond as guided by a confidence so powerful it seems like an inner light; that is probably how Shakespeare intended it to be.
Let me make a final point. If you are fluent in ASL you will doubtlessly enjoy this production more than you would if you were not, although not as much as you would, I suspect, if the entire production was in ASL. Theater done in ASL is powerful, and it will enhance your experience if you learn it, just as it would enhance your experience to understand Moliere done in French, or Chekhov in Russian. It is better to know things than not to know things.
Richard III by William Shakespeare . Directed by Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder, assisted by Krisen Pilgrim, who is also the props manager. Featuring Ethan Sinnott, Sun King Davis, Daniel Corey, Zack Brewster-Geisz, Ben Lauer, Sandra Mae Frank, Rachel Spicknall Mulford, Carolyn Kashner, Kevin Collins, Charles Ainsworth, Bill Fleming, Marilyn Bennett, and Mary Suib. Fight Director: Casey Kaleba . Scenic design by JD Madsen . scenic painting by Michelle Urcuyo . costume design by Eric Nugent, lighting design by Sarah Tundermann . sound design by Stan Harris. Production manager: Theresa Bender . Stage manager: Samantha Owen, assisted by Laura Moody . Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.