Tag Archives: shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Richard III – pared down to brutal basics

I love the exercise of finding similarities and contrasts in two different productions that I see in rapid succession, whether something like Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead performed in repertory, or two movies or plays just coincidentally easy to see together.  But yesterday’s theatregoing adventures exploring the nature and powers of royalty were so different that I’m still kind of disoriented today.

See, yesterday I followed up a viewing of the Red Deer College musical adaptation of Alice Through the Looking Glass with a University of Alberta student production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed and adapted by Lucy Collingwood.

This may have been a mistake.  But both shows opened this weekend for short runs (Richard III had just two more performances this afternoon and tonight).  My schedule got compressed by being snowed in Thursday night, and it hadn’t occurred to me to use the snowed-in time to research Richard III at all, either the Shakespeare version or the historical canon.  I arrived at the FAB Media Room for Richard III still catching my breath from the drive, and entered a dark space with a set piece looming high in one corner of the room, smoke swirling high around the harsh lighting, and two sets of risers arranged at sharp angles bounding a long pointed flat space in front of the steep staircases.

I was confused at the start and had trouble figuring out who was who in the story.  Richard, played by Matthew Kloster, stood out immediately, of course, with an awkward gait and twisted shoulder.  The casting in the program listed one role for each actor “and others”.  The roles were mostly listed as the noble title only, without given names or modifiers such as “brother to Queen Margaret”, and since English nobility seemed to have a very limited pool of given names, there seemed to be several Edwards, Henrys, etc in the story.  At intermission I discovered a short historical note on the display board, but I was still wishing for more of a lineage chart to help me keep the characters straight.

The narrative arc I’m familiar with in tragedies such as the Scottish play has someone committing a first murder for a specific purpose, and then getting swept along a path of committing more crimes in order to protect the gains acquired by the first crime, with the character gradually losing his or her conscience along the way.  But Shakespeare’s Richard III was not portrayed like that.  He seemed to be villainous from the start, and if he didn’t have the whole thing planned out before he started, he sure thought quickly and didn’t seem to have any second thoughts.  And a lot of his plans worked … until they didn’t.  The night before his death in battle, his dreams tormented him with the spectres of various people he’d killed, and while this makes sense as a conventional plot element presaging his doom, it’s actually a little surprising for someone who didn’t seem to have any guilt at all before that.  I found Matthew Kloster’s Richard so frightening that during the character’s periodic addresses to the audience I noticed myself stilling, shrinking into my seat, and looking away so that I wouldn’t catch his eye.  Other particularly strong portrayals included Queen Margaret (Alyson Dicey, last seen in Chris Craddock’s Velveteen Rabbit), widow of King Henry VI of Lancaster, with her curses, and Richard’s brother the Duke of Clarence (Colin Matty, improviser and spoken-word poet).

An ensemble of ten played too many characters to count.  One effective choice in making this work was to have all the actors both male and female play various male roles such as soldiers, lords, and assassins.  After the first disorienting few minutes, I was never confused as to the gender of a character because the female actors’ body language and voices always shifted to signal that their characters were male.  By the climactic battle scene near the end, when Richard’s and Richmond’s (Jimmy Hodges’) supporters were fighting with staves and in hand-to-hand combat, I’d almost stopped noticing that almost all the strong acrobatic fighters I was watching were female.

The designers for this production (Cheyenne Sykes for costumes, Alison Yanota for lighting, Josee Chartrand for set design), chose an almost colourless palette, with consistently harsh blue-tinged smoky light.  Richard dressed in white, but all the other characters were clothed in grey and two specific tones of taupe and mauve, usually barefoot.  Assassins wore black gloves, widows wore veils, soldiers wore polished boots and hair pulled back, but otherwise the costumes seemed plain, unremarkable and uniform, with identical hairstyles and similar black-ringed eyes.

Richard’s power was occasionally demonstrated symbolically in this production by having him make gestures characteristic of the way hypnotism or mind control are commonly represented, with the other characters respond silently as mesmerised or compelled.  As this was not so different than the results of his usual demeanour, it served to underline his control of the situations.  One specific such scene had me recalling a mirror-image representation in the production of Alice Through the Looking Glass I’d seen earlier that day.  In Through the Looking Glass, when Alice crosses the brook to the eighth square and is transformed from pawn to queen in the chess game, this is represented by the White King plucking a golden crown out of the air while he stands behind her and setting it on her head.  In Richard III, Richard has been talking to his brother, King Edward IV (Jimmy Hodges), who seems to be dying, and his wife Queen Elizabeth (Elissa Weinzimmer), when he freezes them all with a gesture, removes the circlet of rank from Elizabeth’s head, and replaces it gently with a black veil, before gesturing them all off stage.  It isn’t clear to me whether he’s hastened his brother’s death or not, but the symbolic actions demonstrate that it’s all part of his twisted plan.

It was a long intense show.  Richard’s death at the end comes as a relief, and we’re left with some hope that those left alive might begin to rebuild a more sane humane kingdom under Richmond.  I also left with the resolution to read at least a synopsis beforehand the next time I go to watch a Shakespeare history play.

Another Comedy of Errors

There are lots of Shakespeare plays that I’ve never seen, studied, or read.  I’ve heard of people who make a point of saving one Shakespeare play so they have something to look forward to … but it’s usually Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus, something after Shakespeare was on the way to jumping the shark.  Anyway, until this year, I hadn’t watched Comedy of Errors at all.  Or studied it, or even read it.  But this summer I enjoyed a production of Comedy of Errors in the tent at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, and then I went to the rap adaptation Bomb-itty of Errors directed by Dave Horak at the Edmonton Fringe.  And then in October I attended a Comedy of Errors production done by Red Deer College Theatre Performance and Creation students and directed by Jeff Page.

The set visible before the play started hinted at a fantasy setting, with playful pastel triangles painted on a city backdrop and courtyard flooring.  Then a drumroll and change in the lightning were followed by solemn standard-bearers and then the solemn entrance of the Duke of Ephesus (Julia van Dam) followed by her frail and bedraggled prisoner, Aegeon (JP Lord).  After the long exposition necessary in the first scene, where Aegeon explains about his wife having been lost at sea with one twin son and one twin slave-companion and the Duke explains that although she feels pity for him, she won’t make an exception to the law banning Syracusians, the action speeds up.  Antipholus of Syracuse (Jake Tkaczyk) and Dromio of Syracuse (Jen Suter), the bewildered travellers, stumble into a cheerful busy marketplace, with bubbly 1960s-inspired pop music in the background.  The costumes too seem to evoke the playful early 1960s, with ice-cream colours, argyle vests, and minidresses.  Soon the play’s theme of mistaken identity becomes clear, as various locals confuse the visiting Antipholus and Dromio for their identical-twin namesakes who live in the town, and the local pair (Richard Leurer as Antipholus of Ephesus and Brittany Martyshuk as Dromio of Ephesus) appear alternately with very similar body language and costuming, making the mix-up credible.  Leurer and Tkaczyk have almost identical jaw-hanging confused expressions.  Adriana, the impatient wife of Antipholus of Ephesus who is waiting the midday meal for her absent husband, is played with irritation and then increasing worry that her husband’s unexplained behaviour might mean that he is unfaithful, by Victoria Day.  Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana (Constance Isaac) has some amusing stage business with high heeled pumps that hurt her feet.  Other local characters complicating the plot include Angelo (Tyler Johnson) a pompous prosperous goldsmith with tailored Nehru jacket and walking stick, an unnamed courtesan (Megan Einarson) in gogo boots with some outrageously flirtatious audience interaction, the Duke’s overeager executioner (Wayne De Atley) and the soothsayer Doctor Pinch (Jessie Muir), an odd steampunk cross between a psychotherapist and a psychic.  The servant Luce, who horrifies Dromio of Syracuse when she mistakes him for her husband Dromio of Ephesus, is played by Bret Jacobs.  Casting Jacobs was an inspired choice for director Jeff Page, since he plays the bossy cook and affectionate wife with hilarious gusto, but also because Dromio of Syracuse’s speech about her being repulsive because she is fat and dark-skinned is both funnier and more acceptable to my modern ears when the character is played by a man.  Another aspect of Shakespeare’s tale that made me uncomfortable on reading and on viewing of the previous productions was the way that the Dromio characters are treated by the Antipholus characters who own them/employ them and were raised together with them, with physical beating as well as verbal abuse.  Again, a directorial choice in this production made that aspect a little more ridiculous and less disturbing, with most of the beating being done using rolled up newspapers.

The courtesan and her retinue performed an original musical number, Nothing but Love, by Edmonton musician Paul Morgan Donald, in a sort of bubbly sixties pop style.  It was fun to watch and listen to, and it is still stuck in my head more than a month later.  It didn’t really advance the plot, but that didn’t matter.

As things get more and more confused and messed up for the fellows from Syracuse, I noticed that they became more and more disheveled with every entrance, jackets lost, shirttails untucked, bow tie undone and almost falling off.  Their Ephesian twins, more domestic and prosperous, didn’t get quite as unravelled.

And then just before things fall apart completely, the tidy denouement worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan has the twins reuniting, the Abbess (Collette Radau, in full habit and wimple subduing audience and citizens with intimidating facial expressions) declaring herself to be the missing wife of Aegeon, and everyone getting their money and jewellery back.

I was particularly impressed by Julia Van Dam’s performance as the Duke of Ephesus.  Her physicality conveyed the character’s undoubted authority, and it was clear in the first scene that the Duke regretted being unable to pardon Aegeon but was unwilling to break the law.  She didn’t play the part as a man; the Duke was referred to with female pronouns and this worked just fine.

The next play in the Red Deer College performance series, featuring some of these performers, is a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, adapted by Jim DeFelice with music by Larry Reese.  It opens tomorrow night, Thursday November 21st, at 7:30 pm on the Mainstage at the RDC Arts Centre.

Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan

Did you miss me?  I spent July working in Saskatoon, as staff on an amazing enrichment program called Shad Valley.  It was fulfilling but exhausting.  I didn’t have time to attend or review theatre, and mostly their theatre calendar seemed to be in the same kind of pre-Fringe lull as in Edmonton anyway.  I’m back now, though, and you’ll be hearing more from me about Edmonton entertainment soon, with my August calendar filling up with Folkfest, Sonic Boom, and the Fringe.

I did get to attend two Shakespeare performances at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan, a tent venue on the bank of the South Saskatchewan River.  The company does two plays in repertory with mostly the same actors, and this year’s offerings were Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors.  We attended Comedy of Errors with our program participants, and I returned with a few friends later to see the Scottish play.

I was not previously familiar with Comedy of Errors, so I bought a No Fear Shakespeare version of the text (original lines on one page, modern-language version on the facing page) the day before and read fast.  Basically, it’s a mistaken-identities-of-twins farce.  I was afraid that it would be confusing to follow, but I was almost always more clear about who was who than the characters in the play were.  I’m still not quite sure how the sets of identical twins ended up with the same names – there was an explanation about the parents being separated in a shipwreck and each rescuing one son and one slave-boy, but I couldn’t tell whether they had originally given the boys non-unique names or whether they’d just gotten muddled about which ones each parent had rescued.  But it definitely accelerated the complications and comedy that there were two look-alike slaves named Dromio (Bob Wicks and Ed Mendez) and two look-alike merchants named Antipholus (Jaron Francis and Mike Prebble).  There was lots of physical humour, especially by the Dromios, by Adriana (Jenna-Lee Hyde) who is married to the local merchant, and by a servant woman named Luce (Tara Schoonbaert).  I was a little distracted by the premise of buying infants as slaves and by the way that everyone took for granted that masters would hit their slaves, and I had to remind myself that this was not just a very different setting, but one that Shakespeare had made up.

The performance was quite short (under 2 hours with intermission I think).  I didn’t find the language a barrier to following the story and laughing at the funny parts.  The light-coloured tent venue and an evening performance in the long northern evening created an unusual lighting effect that contributed to the sense that this was a magical not-quite-real place.

One of the policies of the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan festival is to employ actors from Saskatchewan.  So of course when I went to Comedy of Errors, none of the faces were familiar.  A colleague who is more familiar with the Saskatoon theatre scene said that he recognised several of them and had seen their work or knew them, and that made me realise how much fun it’s been becoming familiar with Edmonton performers over the last year or so.

On the other hand, seeing all the same actors in very different roles a few days later was a delight.  There were a lot of beards in both shows, and I struggled a bit in distinguishing Macduff (Ed Mendez) and Banquo (Bob Wicks) (who were wearing similar beige Highland dress and who had been the Dromios in the other show.)

I studied Macbeth in Grade 12, and I’ve seen two Stratford (Ontario) Festival productions.  But I was still surprised by how quickly the story progressed, with the ambitious couple acting quickly and then with everything going bad even faster.  I also noticed how the shock and horror gradually escalate, from Duncan’s murder being completely off stage to the on-stage slaughter of Lady Macduff and her child or children.

Lady Macbeth (Cassidy Thomson) struck me as very young, compared to how I’d seen her in the past.  Her sexuality and her ways of using her power over her husband and others to further her ambition seemed different somehow because of her age.  One of my companions found Macbeth’s (Matt Burgess) leaps from modesty to ambition to regret early in the play to be less than convincing, and I saw his point.

I remembered the play as being relatively short, but it was still much longer than Comedy of Errors.  The simple set (almost identical to Comedy of Errors) and limited lighting changes and music didn’t impede the director and actors’ ability to create the necessary mood shifts, from the overt spookiness of the witches’ appearance to the more disturbing appearance of Banquo’s ghost at a feast.  This production omitted the chatty funny byplay between Lady Macduff and the smartass son that immediately precedes their brutal murders, as there were no child actors, just a bundle of presumed infant.  It also simplified the Banquo’s ghost scene leaving out the parade of kings, and didn’t exhibit Macbeth’s head on a pike at the end.  But it included a bit that I didn’t remember at all, a discussion about how maybe Malcolm wasn’t suited to be king because he was too lustful.  Now I am wondering if that went completely over my head when I was younger or whether it was left out of our school editions.

Both productions continue into August.  Tickets are available through Ticketmaster as well as locally.  There is easy parking near the festival grounds as is common for everything in Saskatoon, and the festival grounds are a pleasant shady place to linger before the show or at intermission.