Performance Network Theatre's production of "Richard III" bends genders with Carla Milarch (left) in the title role. Photo: Sean Carter Photography

Shakespeare Play Breaks 'Our Winter Of Discontent'

By John Quinn

As Mel Brooks would have it, "It's good to be the king!" As William Shakespeare would have it, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was of a similar opinion. Richard's rise from duke to king was only a matter of a few assassinations, betrayals and usurpations. His absolute amorality makes him one of theater's greatest villains, and the Performance Network Theatre's production of "Richard III" portrays the toad, warts and all.

"Richard III" is a story about the lust for power and the extremes the morally bankrupt will employ to fulfill that lust. The setting is the three-decade long English civil war called the War of the Roses. The struggle is all in the family, since both the House of Lancaster and the House of York are descended from William the Conqueror. Kissin' cousins they're not.

On May 4, 1471, at the Battle of Tewkesbury, the forces of Edward, Duke of York, smashed the army of the Lancastrian King Henry VI, and he seized the throne as Edward IV. Having his family triumphant is not enough for Edward's younger brother, Richard, who aspires to the top job. According to Shakespeare, Richard finds no measure is too heinous to achieve his goals. His shocked supporters dissert him and, in the fateful Battle of Bosworth Field, the Earl of Richmond (a distant cousin of the Lancastrian royal family), defeats Richard and takes the crown.

And that historical nugget is why "Richard III" makes a monster of the king. The Earl of Richmond was crowned Henry VII, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth I, was reigning monarch at the time the play was written - around 1593. There's nothing like creating a villain to deflect the fact that the Queen's grandfather was a usurper. In fact, "Richard III" made The Bard a star.

Director Julia Glander's production is full of twists that Shakespeare never imagined. First and foremost, the casting is "gender neutral." Richard is played by company associate artistic director Carla Milarch; the king is transgendered - biologically a woman, but psychologically a man. Since "Richard III" calls for some 40 characters, there's a lot of doubling and tripling up of actors and roles. Sometimes the pronouns reflect the sex of the actor; sometimes they don't. The intent, in Glander's words, is "gender fluidity." More on that later.

There is a fine harmony between the director and her designers. There is no doubt that, instead of governing Merry Olde England, the warring factions have really trashed the place - literally. Monika Essen's set depicts a junkyard, backed by a smoldering cityscape and fenced by towering chain link. It dramatically matches Julia Glander's vision of a perhaps not-so-distant future dystopia. Among the discards Essen has placed nine TVs, all of which work, but only for one channel - the one spouting the propaganda of whomever is currently king. Katherine Nelson's costume designs continue the trashy ambiance; they are an eclectic mix of fashions, heavy on the leather. Lighting designer Daniel C. Walker makes sophisticated use of low lights that beam up on the actors, creating subtle, eerie effects. Eerie too is Will Myers' sound design, full of jarring discord and startling blasts. In all, the look of "Richard III" is as wonderfully disturbing as the plot itself.

The Performance Network production runs three hours and is worth every minute. Some of the most beautiful acting is in scenes tangential to the main plot.

This may be the first time three queens beat a full house. They are Cecily, Duchess of York (Terry Heck), Queen Mother of Edward IV; Elizabeth (Janet Haley), his widow; and Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. Spoiler alert - Margaret is played in her glorious madness by a scene-stealing John Seibert. Their shared scenes are remarkable in how deep they explore the emotional context, and how elegant their line readings.

A scene frequently cut is a playful dalliance between Lord Hastings and Mistress Shore. In keeping with her intent to bend gender, Glander has cast Alysia Kolascz as Hastings and the lanky Derek Ridge as Shore, portrayed here as something of a bisexual prostitute. The lord is referred to as "she"; the mistress as "he." Yes, it's suitably creepy, but the role reversal produces a smokin' hot, sexy scene. The artists are really in sync.

Also in role reversal is Richmond, aptly played in full patriotic splendor by Kolascz.

Shakespearian plays, when removed from their historical context, are usually done so for relevance. How far can a director stretch the playwright's intent and still remain true to the material? Glander is following the theme of power; tracing the importance of who holds it and how it is wielded, for good or for evil. The addition of gender fluidity underscores an envisioned time when sexual equality is achieved but intrinsic cultural biases are still present.

Is "Richard III" the proper project to illuminate that situation? Even pre-Freud Shakespeare created Richard as a psychopath, as deformed on the outside as on the inside. He is frequently portrayed as a hunchback (and the discovery of his remains in 2012 shows he had severe scoliosis of the spine). Glander's Richard sees himself physically deformed by the lack of male genitalia. He "cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days"; is that motivation enough to "prove a villain?" Nowhere in this production is it suggested that Richard's inner depravity was brought on by his physical condition, but it's a sensitive area in which to be treading.

Shakespeare was responsible for a little gender bending of his own, since all his women were originally played by boys. A woman playing his male protagonist is not unheard of, notably Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet. Carla Milarch is a wonderfully joyous Richard. She is totally believable in the multi-layered role and revels in the dark humor present. In fact, it might be just as well to sit back and enjoy an entertaining show without additional relevance.

(FOR "REVIEW BOX")

REVIEW:

'Richard III'

Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through June 1. 3 hours. $27-46. 734-663-0681. http://www.performancenetwork.org

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