I’m not sure which is the more demented notion: Bag & Baggage Productions turning Shakespeare’s blood-soaked tragedy Richard III into a comedy, or seeing it outdoors on Hillsboro’s charming Main Street in 100°+ temperatures. In fact, Bag & Baggage’s Richard III is both a perfect summer theater experience — and way too fulfilling to be a mere summer fling. Thanks to the shade of the buildings looming over Hillsboro’s Civic Center Plaza and a gentle breeze, even the heat proved no problem. An audacious production like this happens only once in a blue moon, and fortunately, there’s one rising this weekend.
B&B Artistic Director Scott Palmer conceived this Richard’s crazy concept — transforming one of theater’s best known bloody tragedies into a comedy — a dozen years ago when he was running Scotland’s Glasgow Repertory Company. What would the story of an ambitious English lord who’s willing to murder and manipulate even his own family members in order to claim the crown look like, Palmer wondered, viewed through its antihero’s evil eyes?
As his fascinating and detailed program note explains, Palmer draws his depiction of Richard’s point of view (not the character himself) from the well-known Machiavellian character of The Vice, prevalent in Renaissance morality plays, which scholars have long regarded as a source for Shakespeare’s own take on Richard’s character. “He brought intrigue and deceit, created laughter, engaged the audience’s sympathy through the creation of a conspiratorial relationship, asking the audience to be ‘in on the plot,” Palmer writes. “The Vice was a figure of the carnival, who fights established authority and embodied the audience’s anti-authoritarian impulses – he was a representation of the audiences secret desires, their frustrations, their ambitions.”
Like Shakespeare, Palmer manipulates the audience’s sympathy for Richard. “I have always been drawn to Richard as a character,” Palmer admits. “I like him. Everyone does. He is the charming Machiavel, the gorgeous grotesque, the witty fascist, the smartest guy in the room, the hilarious schemer. I have always wanted Richard to win, and have wondered what the world of Shakespeare’s play would have been like had he found that horse he called for. Yeah, he is an unrepentant villain and a mass murderer, but he is just…so…damn…likeable!”
Seen from Richard’s point of view, the play’s other privileged, selfish, arrogant characters are hardly more appealing, if somewhat less homicidal, and, like the archetypes in a morality play, not nearly as three dimensional as he is. Richard would find the whole scheming buffoonish crowd, Palmer believes, hilarious. Palmer’s comic take therefore offers the possibility of new insight into the motivations of one of theater’s — and English history’s — most infamous characters. Maybe Richard committed his atrocities because he sees the world and its moral conventions as one big joke. Presto: “now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.” That’s also why theater’s most famous hunchback doffs his crutches in the opening scene and struts vigorously throughout the show — he doesn’t see himself as disabled. And when he reclaims them, along with his twisted posture, at the end, you know that reality has caught up with his self-delusion.
The disconnect between a protagonist’s self image and the reality of the outside world is, of course, classic material for comedy, as Shakespeare knew (e.g. Falstaff among many other characters), even if he didn’t use it that way in Richard, with a few mordant exceptions. Palmer skillfully exploits the inherent irony of the situation: Richard’s every deceitful public action, and those of many of his antagonists, contrasts with their real aims. Yet for reasons that don’t become clear till the end, Palmer wisely resists the urge to turn Richard into a Dr. Evil-style buffoon; this is comedy, not farce. Instead, the audience buys into his twisted worldview rather than smirking at its absurdity. We’re laughing with Richard, not at him.
None of this background would matter a whit if the show didn’t work. But thanks to brisk-tempo humor executed with flawless timing and madcap pace, this Richard thoroughly delights both Bardophiles (who enjoy the absurdity of jamming a familiar story into an unexpected form, as in The Simpsons’ Streetcar Named Desire musical spoof) and Shakespeare novices (including the teenager sitting next to us) via the usual off-script methods, some of which even the Bard used in his time: outrageous accents (here, Brooklyn, Scottish and more), physical comedy (sometimes stooping to Three Stooges level), unscripted asides winked to the audience, broad gestures (up to and including wedgies that I’m pretty sure aren’t indicated in the First Folio), contemporary comedic references (Blackadder, Monty Python, South Park, Rickles, etc.) and so on.
The alfresco setting (bring your own chair) allows easy breaching of the fourth wall — in fact, there are no walls to breach — with actors wandering through audience and playing off them like stand-up comics. Silly props include a severed head, vodka coffin, even walker (the kind you see in retirement centers) humor. That last device allows Cassie Greer’s Duchess of York the longest exit in theater history, yet it’s not boring. In general, the gags that grew organically from the story and characters worked better than generic slapstick. But Palmer’s had years to trim the overlong original by a third (without losing anything really important) and develop this script into a tight, crackling entertainment, with only a few slack patches in the scenes leading up to intermission, where sometimes the straining to be funny shows.
Intermission descended around the same time as the sun, and as the skies darkened, so did the play’s mood, with Act II eschewing almost all traces of humor, as if to suggest that as much as we chortle at Richard’s antics, their bloody consequences that follow are no laughing matter. As the full moon rose over Civic Center plaza, the ghosts of Richard’s victims haunt his dreams on the eve of the pivotal 1485 battle of Bosworth Field, as the play hurtles to its sharp end. Except that Richard’s real ending wasn’t actually known until a couple years ago, when his corpse was discovered beneath a most un-royal Leicester parking lot, proving that maybe his character’s cynical take on human morals and ambitions was valid after all, and the joke’s ultimately always on us, as long as we wait long enough for the punch line.
With minimal props and the only set a graffiti-scrawled backdrop that also serves as a shadow screen and handy (and funny) guide to the royal lineage and historical context, B&B’s mix of veteran actors and newcomers enthusiastically carry the show, led by Peter Schuyler’s brilliant, kinetic performance. His irresistibly roguish Richard is more than just a dick. Schuyler makes us feel his villainy, ambition, and attractiveness, while simultaneously maintaining a comic edge that somehow doesn’t dilute his character’s evil.
Eric St. Cyr’s Hastings pretty much steals the spotlight with every cackle (“I hate everything!”), comically revealing his true hostility beneath the required formal pleasantries just Richard does in his monologues. Greer and Mariel Sierra pull off two entirely different roles with aplomb. Undaunted by the heat and heavy, Restoration-style costuming and wigs, the other high-spirited leads vividly electrify their over-the-top characters. With their crack timing, solid chemistry, and every line easily audible and confidently characterized, this might have been the finest top to bottom acting I’ve seen from this exceptional company. The masterful second act is one of the most compelling stretches of theater I’ve seen this year.
The fact that it’s also the least humorous part of the play raises the question of whether Palmer’s comic concept actually works, and I could certainly understand why some audiences, and not just Shakespeare purists, might not be persuaded. But by switching from a comic take to a tragic one mid-play, Palmer accentuates the punch of the original, in which we audience members ultimately feel ashamed of rooting for Richard. Implicating us in his story, whether comically as here or dramatically as in the original, is a crucial part of the play’s payoff: our sympathy for the devil explains why charismatic villains win followers for their bloody deeds. Our fatal attraction to bloody Richard is even stronger here than in a straight production because we all like someone who can make us laugh — even when the last laugh’s on us.
Bag & Baggage’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, adapted and directed by Scott Palmer runs through August 1, at Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza, 150 E Main Street, Hillsboro. Tickets are available online or at 503-345-9590.
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