by JK Clarke
A handful of Shakespeare plays are routinely subjected to radical re-interpretations—Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet—and for a variety of reasons, whether it be to make the plays accessible to a wider audience or merely to artfully cast a familiar story in a different light. The Bridge Production Group has moved into that space with their inaugural full-scale production, an aggressive, modern take on Shakespeare’s bloody and brutal Richard III, now playing at the Fourth Street Theatre. Though Richard III is not as widely known as the aforementioned classics, it’s the perfect candidate for a re-imagining. The play’s central figure is one of the most evil characters in all literature, and his pathway to the throne is both violent and astonishing (sometimes laughably so). It’s downright cinematic, as evidenced in the 1995 British film starring the remarkable Ian McKellen as a ruthless, Nazi-esque neo-fascist. The Bridge Production Group and director Max Hunter have chosen to travel down a similar pathway, but creating a Richard who’s ruthless serial killer whose political gains are almost inconsequential.
Though technically one of Shakespeare’s History Plays, Richard III follows a tragic arc, notwithstanding the fact that the central character, Richard of Gloucester (Max Hunter), has no discernable redeeming qualities. At the play’s open he launches directly into one of the greatest soliloquies in the English language: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York . . . “ (although in this production, strangely and somewhat disappointingly, the first few lines are spoken by the reigning king, Edward IV). The speech is meant to instantly acquaint us with this clever, bitter and vengeful character who lays out his plans for taking over the kingdom: “I am determined to prove a villain.” Despite handing off his best known lines, he still establishes his evil, and admirably. From there it’s an orgy of ruthless murders—including his adolescent nephews—and the shocking seduction of Lady Anne (Christina Toth), whose father and husband Richard had helped kill (in the Henry VI plays). Of course it’s not long before his enemies unite and kill him in battle.
Richard III is the second longest of Shakespeare’s plays. An “unabridged” version would clock in at a minimum of three and half hours, so most small, independent productions edit considerably and choose a central focus. Here Hunter has exploded the theme of Richard’s violence and sociopathy and set aside a good deal of the politics. Heavily influenced-in look and feel-by last spring’s short-lived American Psycho – The Musical on Broadway, it is an expressive, postured, and movement-oriented piece flecked with sometimes humorously placed songs primarily from the 80s (e.g. The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”). The set (Seth Byrum) feels, appropriately, like a slaughterhouse, ablaze with cool lights, projected video images (Cheyenne Sykes) on corrugated aluminum walls and clear plastic curtains which capture spurts of victims’ blood throughout. An effective, but nearly played-out device. Nicolle Allen’s costumes also suggest a murder scene, with characters stepping in and out of white, disposable coveralls.
With their bold first production, The Bridge Production Group has signalled an intent to produce challenging, ambitious theater. Their Richard III is an enjoyable, if simplified and focused, take on a complex play, providing an accessible gateway to theatre-goers who might otherwise not be as likely to attend Shakespeare’s history plays.
Richard III. Through November 27 at the Fourth Street Theatre (83 East 4th Street, between Second and Third Avenues). www.bridgeproductiongroup.org