FG review: Richard and the women

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's 'R3' radically reinterprets 'Richard III'

The poster image of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble's "R3"

The poster image of Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s “R3”

As I suggested yesterday, I have no faith that my suggestions about what shows to see at Fertile Ground will be useful to you at all. That’s at least partly because I haven’t seen most of them. We’re all just a little bit in the dark here.

I won’t see most of them, either. There’s just too much. I did a quick count in the catalog, and it looks as though eight different new shows are opening today, and nine (9) are continuing from last night.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAnd even though it isn’t technically part of Fertile Ground, Northwest Dance Project’s “(a)merging 2013,” a new choreography concert with two different programs over two successive weekends, also opens tonight.

So, yes, new work everywhere you look! (Fortunately, ArtsWatch has some other writers out there on the case…)

I have seen a few of those shows because they opened earlier in the month, and today I thought I’d write about one of them, the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble’s “R3,” which I’ve been thinking about for a few days now. No, not all day, every day, but intermittently. And I’ve decided that even though it’s not technically new work—it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III”—it still FELT new.

***

The Headwaters Theatre on Northeast Farragut is a small black box theater, with a raked seating area at one end and a playing area at the other. For “R3” it was mostly unadorned.

The audience walked in to Richard, played by Jacob Coleman, watching a television, apparently an inauguration of some sort, which must have peeved him, because he finally got up in disgust and started in on one of the great beginning speeches in Shakespeare: “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

We are on familiar ground here. This Richard doesn’t have a humped-back nor a limp, though he bounces around with his knees deeply bent, simian-like, and one of his hands is curled and constricted. That’s Richard, all right. But then instead of finding himself surrounded by the men of court and slowly snaring them (“Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous”) in his traps, this Richard finds himself with the women of the play, queens and queen mothers and would-be queens and ex-queens.

That’s the idea behind director Gisela Cardenas’s interpretation, which radically prunes the  Shakespeare, until it’s mostly Richard and the women.

***

“Richard III” is usually reduced the OTHER way (I’m thinking of the Royal National Theatre’s great 1995 version, preserved on film, and starring Ian McKellen) preserving the juiciest of the women’s lines and role in the narrative and jettisoning the rest in favor of the very machinations that Cardenas has chopped. I remember seeing an Oregon Shakespeare Festival production in 1993 (with Marco Barricelli as Richard)  that alerted me to this practice: It was full-length, almost four hours, and I was struck by how important the women were in the production, and not just the amazing seduction of Lady Anne or Queen Margaret’s delicious curses.

So, I was favorably predisposed for Cardenas’s re-gendering approach. Her intervention didn’t end with the editing, though. In the same way that Coleman held himself and moved in “unnatural” ways, so did the women in the cast, holding themselves erectly and employing hand gestures in a distinctive, stylized way. This wasn’t tension and release. This was just tension.

Cardenas also used some stage devices to represent the “male parts” of the story, two pairs of boots to stand in for the young sons of King Edward and their road to the Tower (and the Tower itself) represented by adhesive tape, for example. Once those boots are kicked and scattered we know the fate of those young sons, right? And sometimes the women in the cast play men, notably Rebecca Lingafelter as Buckingham.

If this is starting to sound complex, well, “Richard III” IS complex, and keeping all of those characters and their claims to the throne straight through the pain and concern of the women with whom they are connected, that’s even harder. I know the play pretty well, and I found myself consulting the handy lineage provided in the program to keep things straight. Sometimes I didn’t succeed, I have to admit.

***

Are we compensated for our occasional confusion? Doing “Richard III” this way focuses our attention on Richard’s rhetoric, his powers of persuasion, his verbal sleight-of-hand, the way he twists language, especially the language of values, to his own purposes. Are the women he tries to win over actually persuaded? Or do they just give up because they understand that beneath his words he has real power? Or do they just get tired: Richard is a persistent arguer.

This  is all in the text, of course; we just lose sight of it (or hearing of it), as Richard makes the chess moves that land him on the throne. And “R3” gets us back in touch with a lying liar and the lies he tells!

Coleman keeps all of this straight in a clean, clear performance, and I also found the “women” convincing: Lingafelter as Buckingham, Amber Whitehall as Lady Anne, Shelley Virginia as Queen Margaret, Paige McKinney as the Duchess of York and Cristi Miles as Queen Elizabeth. They all have a lot to sort out, including multiple roles, and the stylization of the acting goes beyond the hand gestures. It’s not too great a stretch to call “R3” a sort of dance.

For a “reduced Shakespeare,” “R3” has a lot of effects (costumes, lights, props, sound, hairstyles, etc.), and under Cardenas, a non-naturalistic acting style that is dense and demanding. Together, it all makes a “Richard III” that seems both familiar and quite new. Which I suppose is the aim of this particular experiment: By disorienting us, it helps us find something very new in an old story.

NOTES

John Kin’s preview for OPB’s Arts & Life page provides a very useful history of  the Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble.

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