By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
By comparison, King Richard III makes Macbeth look like a pussycat. As Shakespeare's worst/best sociopath, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, romps merrily through one of the Bard's longest plays, killing everyone who stands, sits or squats between him and the throne of England.
In a classical five-act production of Richard III, he finally gets the crown somewhere in hour three, with a good 45 minutes left for wordplay and swordplay before trying to swap his kingdom for a horse. Kitchen Dog Theater has done us all a favor in its current staging by allowing director Ian Leson to lop a good 90 minutes out of the script, thus eliminating dozens of extraneous citizens and scriveners, and stripping the play to its essence. What remains is a tight production that moves at a rapid clip, hitting the important highs and lows in the story of a demented power freak working out his insecurities through serial homicide.
This take on the trickiest Dick of them all also updates the action from medieval times to an unspecified contemporary setting. In a wing of a creepy castle (by designer Clare Floyd DeVries) that is part Jules Verne sub, part Phil Spector mansion, the royals and their hangers-on enter the first act dancing like mad in a roiling mosh pit. They're dressed in funky leathers, velvets and brocades (costumes by Bruce R. Coleman), their hair spiked and fashionably frizzed.
The raucous party is interrupted by the entrance of Richard, last of the Plantagenets and not the guy most likely to be king—especially not prom king. Everyone hates him. He's ugly, for one thing, described by various characters, mostly women, as a "lump of foul deformity," "bottled spider," "cacodemon" (evil spirit) and "poisonous bunch-backed toad."
Some actors long to play Romeo, some to play Richard. It's a hugely showy role, second only to Hamlet in numbers of lines. And he's famously flawed, physically and psychologically. Past Richards have been portrayed with a limp (by Laurence Olivier a half-century ago), a hump and shriveled arm (Ian McKellen in a 1995 film that likened the character to Hitler), a hump and a limp (Al Pacino in a 1996 film exploration), with a hump and in lipstick and heels (Richard Dreyfuss as a humiliated actor in Neil Simon's The Goodbye Girl), and four years ago by a small-statured actor, Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), at New York's Public Theater. So at Kitchen Dog, when Richard rolls onto the stage in a wheelchair, it makes perfect sense in the context of his first speech: "But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass...Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable, that dogs bark at me as I halt by them."
Why shouldn't Richard III use a wheelchair? René Moreno, a Dallas theater director making a rare appearance as an actor, uses his real-life wheelchair (the result of an accident in 1991) and makes fine use of it in his performance in Richard III. Up and down the set's ramps he glides, sometimes rolling in so quietly from the wings that the audience is startled when he begins to speak. The effect is exciting, a total synergy of actor, technology and role.
The guy in the chair is easy to accept. But Leson's adaptation otherwise injects a few too-silly bits of modern life here and there. Characters whip cell phones from their pockets and call their friends to warn of Richard's next treacherous move. One of Richard's henchmen pecks out a message on a Blackberry, and revolvers are brandished instead of swords. Even the final duel between Richard and Richmond on Bosworth Field, though it is carried out with shiny daggers, is underscored with sounds of heavy artillery.
The gimcracks are momentary distractions. Leson's best move is to emphasize the dark humor of the piece. Richard III, for all its bloodletting (offstage in this production, except for the title character's death at the end), is one of Shakespeare's funniest plays, even if it is categorized among his tragedies. Richard is given lots of juicy asides to say to the audience. After a smart remark by one of the royal nephews he means to murder, Richard snipes, "So wise so young, they say, do never live long." At these, Moreno is a master of timing and delivery.
It may be a shortened Dick the third, but its best scenes are two of its longest. In one, Moreno oozes false sincerity as his Richard convinces grief-stricken Queen Elizabeth (the wild and wonderful Tina Parker) to let him marry her daughter. The other is a war of words between the Queen and Lady Anne (Christina Vela, who plays three other roles as well) that shows off both voluptuous actresses at their voluminous best. The other supporting players, all doubling and tripling up on characters, are some of Kitchen Dog's favorites for good reasons. Barry Nash, David Goodwin, Robert McCollum, Cameron Cobb and Dan Forsythe make it seem as if the stage were crowded with three times as many players. Cobb is particularly chilling as Richard's right-hand man, the Duke of Buckingham. Outlining his political strategy, he's Karl Rove in iambic pentameter.