Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Renaissance Continues, Dives Into Tragedy

The 2012 Actors' Renaissance Season presses on at the American Shakespeare Center. However, next on the list isn't a heart warming comedy; there won't be happy marriages, star-crossed lovers, or hilarious cases of mistaken identity. Next on the list is Richard III, one of Shakespeare's darkest tragedies; a play that contains murder, betrayal, and perhaps the most villainous character in all of Shakespeare's works. The title character in Richard III begins as the Duke of Gloucester and later becomes king. His ascension to the throne could hardly be called smooth, and defines why he is the cruelest of villains. At the beginning of the play, Richard openly admits to being "subtle, false, and treacherous". His ambition drives him to the point of murder more often than not, and family means absolutely nothing to him (made pretty obvious by the fact that his brother is one of his main targets). The ensuing events are suspenseful, intense, and full of death and suffering. With that being said, this play is not without humor, albeit dark and subtle humor. Richard goes about destroying all those in his way, all the while winking at the audience to make sure they know what he's about to do. He draws the audience in so that they almost feel like a co-conspirator, and because of that the audience begins to forgive Richard a little bit more than they should, and even, dare I say it, root him on.

I recently sat in on a rehearsal for Richard III as I did for Much Ado about Nothing, and although the plays are wildly different, my impressions didn't change that much. The actors raced through the script, blocking it out and sculpting the action in a way that told an effective story, they were all memorized on their lines (even more impressive since Richard III is the second longest Shakespeare play behind Hamlet), and the actors gave their characters a subtlety and specificity that is mind-boggling at this early stage in the process. What pleasantly surprised me was the use of humor. In places, the actors worked diligently to bring out the humor as much as possible. This created small reprieves from the violence where I could catch my breath, and because of that, the plunge back into the tragedy grabbed hold of me even harder.

Watching Richard III is kind of like watching a really good thriller movie (not that terrible gory stuff...I'm talking Hitchcock here). You have an idea of what's going to happen, but Shakespeare draws scenes out in a way that slowly pulls you more to the edge of your seat; you're waiting for something crazy to happen, you know something is right around the corner, but you won't see until Shakespeare has made you whittle down your fingernails with anticipation. A good example of this is the murder (or almost murder...you have to see the show to find out what really happens) of Richard's brother, Clarence. I won't give anything important away for you future audience members, but two hired hands are about to kill Clarence in his sleep. At the last moment, Clarence wakes up and, better yet, he knows what the two men are there to do. What follows is a heart stopping dialogue between the three men about the afterlife, the meaning of family, love, and a man's dignity. That scene was rehearsed today while I was sitting in the seats at the Blackfriars Playhouse, and let me tell you, I can't remember if I was breathing the whole time.

In the end, this kind of tragedy is not for everyone. However, I think it's well worth everyone's time; The story is compelling, the individual performances (from what I saw) are great, the epic nature of the play promises to broaden anyone's horizons, and you get to feel a little bit like a villain's side kick. I mean, come on, who doesn't like to feel a little bad every now and then?

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