Winter of our discontent
The history of Shakespeare productions is littered with ill-advised “twists.” Many directors try to bring something new to the classic plays instead of simply getting out of the way of some of the best writing in the English language. Brüka Theatre’s production of Richard III, directed by Dave Anderson, sets the play in Gangland-era Chicago. This risky move works. The world of organized crime provides one of the few historical contexts where it’s conceivable for such a prodigious series of personal atrocities to occur unchecked.
Richard III concerns the nasty Duke of Gloucester (Tom Plunkett), who has entirely too many relatives standing between him and the throne. In the text, he yearns to be King. At Brüka, he longs to be Don. Through a series of manipulations carried out on people who are mostly his own relations, Gloucester inches closer and closer to power. Part of what sets him apart from other Shakespearean villains is that the other characters all seem to know what Gloucester is up to, and they still can’t stop him. In this respect, the mafia premise rings very true.
One of the challenges of Richard III, and the one that ultimately undoes this production, is its almost impossibly large dramatis personae. There’s little exposition to ease the audience into keeping track of who is related to whom, and the various ways they have pissed each other off. The Edwards alone—there are four, if I’m not mistaken—are enough to make your head spin. Though Anderson’s abridgement leaves the necessary threads intact, when complicated genealogies are coupled with the reality of a limited cast, it becomes too much to swallow. Anderson employs several tricks to help the audience. Buckingham (Lew Zaumeyer) is easy to remember because he’s a dandy Southern gentleman. Some characters are given Irish brogues, some old-world Sicilian accents, and still others sound like the Sopranos.
However, even for a sharp playgoer who knows his Yorks from his Lancasters, some casting is problematic to the point of distraction. I’m sympathetic to the challenge of filling up thankless roles with functional actors. Here, however, the cast is stretched thin to the point of breaking. To be fair, several actors, including Jamie Woodham Plunkett and Michael Peters, are distinct enough in their multiple characterizations to serve the text. But Anderson is ultimately forced to use female actors in roles where their gender is not only unconventional, but glaringly incongruous. Unfortunately, this seems due to practical limitations rather than a social commentary on gender and power.
The first two acts are enjoyable once you settle into the concept of the Bard by way of Mario Puzo—and if you survive the initial shock of mobsters emoting in iambic pentameter. Dale Fast’s portrayal of Gloucester’s brother Clarence is first-rate. Moira Bengochea is suitably heart-wrenching in the role of the York family matriarch. Mr. Plunkett’s Gloucester is entertaining, especially when he is doing the improbable, like wooing a woman whose husband and father-in-law he just finished dispatching.
It’s in the final third of the play that the production buckles under the weight of the text. The action is fast-paced, the text is trimmed with ruthless economy, girls are dressed like boys, actors are breathlessly quick-changing, voiceovers stand in for ghosts, and the delicate suspension of disbelief is derailed with messy results.
The production’s degree of difficulty makes it almost fascinating at times, but Brüka and Mr. Anderson have earned the right to be held to a high standard. In this instance, they have aimed very high, and come up short.