Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III

James Wallis in Richard III. Photo by Kyle Purcell.

 

Shakespeare Bash’d opened its 2018 season to a sold-out house at the Monarch Tavern last night with a classic tale of murderous machinations and royal double-crosses with its production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by Julia Nish-Lapidus with associate director Megan Miles.

For those not familiar with the history and characters behind this drama: no worries, there’s a handy, brief introduction in the program to orient you to the background and major players in this story of violence, betrayal and plotting over the English throne.

The War of the Roses has just ended, with The House of York (who wore the white rose) victorious over the House of Lancaster (wore the red rose). Taking advantage of the recent upheaval and a country still divided, Richard of Gloucester (James Wallis) turns his brother King Edward IV (Trevor Pease), who’s been suffering ill health, against their brother Clarence (also played by Pease; do-able as Clarence and Edward are never in a scene together). Playing the long game, Richard is counting on Edward’s imminent death – which, when it comes to pass, only leaves him with two young princes to deal with.

Weaving a complex, tangled web of deceit that includes toxic gossip dissemination and emotional manipulation, Richard manages to calm the wrath of Anne (Jennifer Dzialoszynski), widow of the usurped Prince of Wales, who he slayed – in that classic complex and difficult two-hander that takes place over the casket of her dead husband. She later has little choice but to consent to marry him. Unrelenting in his drive and ambition, and dangerously unpredictable, even Richard’s followers become uneasy around him – and rightly so. As the bodies pile up on his way to the throne, friends who supported him – like Hastings (Kelly Wong) and Buckingham (Cosette Derome) – are executed when he whiffs even the slightest scent of disloyalty or hesitation in executing his orders.

And just when you think Richard can’t get any more disgusting, after he orders the assassination of his two nephew princes, he gets rid his wife Anne (poison) and goes on to demand that his brother’s widowed queen Elizabeth (Catherine Rainville) speak to her daughter Elizabeth (his niece) to prepare her to be his queen!

Richard III’s crimes do not go unpunished. In the end, the House of Lancaster rises up and Richmond (Drew O’Hara) rallies supporters to depose the tyrant king and reunify the country.

Outstanding work from the multitasking ensemble in this complex, dynamic tale of familial homicide, vengeance and bringing down a tyrant: Cosette Derome, Jade Douris, Jennifer Dzialoszynski, Suzette McCanny, Shalyn McFaul, Drew O’Hara, Trevor Pease, Catherine Rainville, James Wallis, Kelly Wong and Joseph Zita. Wallis gives us a subtle, cunning and menacing Richard. Richard is the king of fake news – and, as we know from current experience, when it comes to fake news, he who smelt it dealt it. Casually executing acts of horrible violence, Richard is adept at masking his true feelings and masterfully manipulates public opinion, playing the humble and devout servant of the realm when it suits his skeevy, scheming purposes.

Other stand-outs include Derome’s ambitious and sly Buckingham; friend and loyal supporter of Richard’s schemes, even she can’t help but be disturbed by his actions and orders. McCanny is fierce in her curses and merciless in her rage as Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. McFaul (as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother) and Dzialoszynski (as Anne) give heartbreaking performances in their vengeance-filled grief over their lost husbands and kinsmen; overcome by circumstance and feelings of powerlessness, they fight back as best as they can with their words. And, speaking of fighting words, Rainville (Elizabeth) is fearless in her dagger spitting face-off against Richard, ferociously attempting to defend her young daughter even as she mourns her lost husband and murdered sons.

Pease gives several strong performances: the mild-mannered, baffled Clarence; the regal and struggling new King Edward; and the chilling Ratcliffe (Richard’s muscle). O’Hara is an inspiring Richmond, giving a rousing pre-battle speech in the vein of that famous Henry V speech; seeking to heal a brutally injured country, Richmond plans to bring peace and unity in his victory. Adding some welcome comic relief are Wong’s wry-witted, smug Hastings; and, sent to take care of Clarence in the Tower, O’Hara and Zita’s darkly comic assassins become hilariously dazed and confused when confronted with their target.

This minimalist production is staged effectively and dynamically in an alley format (audience on both sides of the long, narrow playing area); and the hard rock music interludes, and jeans, t-shirt and sweater costuming, give it a contemporary edge.

Foul treachery, sweet slithering manipulation and a tyrant falls in Shakespeare Bash’d compelling, accessible Richard III.

Richard III continues at the Monarch Tavern till February 11; advance tickets are already sold out, but if you arrive early, you can get on the wait list 30 minutes before show time ($25 – cash only).

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Fond, foolish love & trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night

Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2016-17 season with a ripping version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; directed by James Wallis with associate director Drew O’Hara, and opening to a sold out house at the Monarch Tavern last night.

Set in the 1920s, and inspired by the music, speak easy atmosphere and carpe diem abandon of that decade, this version of Twelfth Night also hits notes of melancholy and the lost innocence of a society that’s just come through its first world war—self-medicating with jazz and booze, and grabbing love and happiness when and where they can.

Orsino (Shawn Ahmed) is deeply in love with Olivia (Hallie Seline), but she is in deep mourning for her father and now her brother, whose death occurred soon after. Meanwhile, Viola (Jade Douris) has washed ashore, surviving a ship wreck in which she fears her twin brother Sebastian was lost. Aware that she is a woman alone and setting foot on less than friendly territory, she disguises herself as a page named Cesario and goes to work for Orsino. Seizing an opportunity to utilize the pretty youth, Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit to Olivia—leaving Olivia smitten with Cesario, which is beyond awkward for Cesario/Viola, as she’s fallen in love with Orsino.

In Olivia’s household, her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Briere), ignored suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jesse Nerenberg) and sassy gentlewoman Maria (Julia Nish-Lapidus) plot revenge on Olivia’s severe, proud steward Malvolio (Jesse Griffiths) with the help of the newly returned Feste (a female Fool in trousers played by Lesley Robertson) and the local parish priest Fabian (Augusto Bitter).

Meanwhile, we learn that Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Yung) has survived the wreck; saved by the ship’s captain Antonio (Nate Bitton), now a good friend and devoted to Sebastian. And, of course, as this is Shakespeare, there’s a comedy of errors with the twins—and as it’s a comedy, it all works out in the end. But this is a comedy with dark undertones, particularly with the tricks played on Malvolio, which go from harmless prank to gas lighting; and there is an edge of wounded melancholy evident in all the characters.

Really nice work from the ensemble, who invite the audience along the journey, bringing us into this world. Stand-outs include Seline’s Olivia, a lovely and richly layered performance; a proud, strong woman, Olivia has sharp enough wit to match any man, but also a tender and fragile heart. Seline conveys as much from a facial expression as she does with the text. Griffiths does a great job with Malvolio; stiff and imperious, with a nasty, prideful underbelly, the self-righteous Malvolio is too self-involved and delighted to see what’s really going on when the others punk him.

Robertson drops the mic as Feste; hilariously witty and a master debater, she too has a soft heart—especially for Curio—and we get the sense that, beneath all her tomfoolery, she’s come through the war deeply hurt. And Briere and Nerenberg make for a very funny, odd team as the drunken, layabout Belch and awkward, clueless Aguecheek.

Speaking of tomfoolery, the letter reveal scene is particularly hilarious, with Belch, Aguecheek and Fabian rushing about to hide as they watch Malvolio read a love letter he believes to be for him from Olivia; as is the duel scene between the terrified Aguecheek and Douris’s adorably baffled and equally petrified Cesario/Viola.

Opening with music selections from the period—and featuring accompaniment (guitar, ukulele and piano), lovely vocals and original music by Franziska Beeler (as Curio)—there’s a sexy, jazzy vibe to this production; and nicely bookended with the dance number (choreographed by Douris) at the curtain call.

Fond, foolish love and trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 5; it’s a short run and they’re already sold out, but if you show up early, they may be able to squeeze you in. Please note the 7:30pm start time for evening performances; there are also matinees at 2pm on February 4 and 5.

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Photo by Kyle Purcell: Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus & Daniel Briere, with Jesse Griffiths’ legs