The Fog of War
Richard III moves about amid the ruins
Published: October 10, 2012
Written By William Shakespeare, Directed by Ian Gallanar
At PFI Historic Park through Oct. 28
One thing you’ll learn from the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s version of Richard III: The Wars of the Roses were no picnic. So if you’re expecting to experience this outdoor production with a bottle of Riunite and a lawn chair, think again.
First, an explanation is necessary. The Wars of the Roses were an ongoing series of bloody battles of attrition fought between warring factions in the late 15th century. By updating the play’s time period to World War I, a more recent war of that same ilk, director Ian Gallanar isn’t trying to develop historical parallels between the two. Instead, he is creating a historical palette. This Movable Shakespeare version isn’t just set in a World War I battleground—it probably gets the audience about as close to being in a bombarded village during the Battle of Somme as you’re likely to get. Alternately brilliant and frustrating, this is a production that’s difficult to forget.
The site of the Chesapeake Theater’s summer season has always been the beautiful (if difficult to find) Patapsco Female Institute (PFI) Historic Park in Ellicott City. It’s a school for girls which transformed into a private home in the early 20th century and briefly, during World War I, was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers. It is currently a halfway-reconstructed version of the original—roofless, but without the rough edges. For years it has served as a dominating backdrop, rivaling the Evergreen House near Roland Park, for Shakespeare productions involving local and professional actors.
With this roving theater production, Gallanar decided that, instead of a backdrop to Richard III, the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park would actually become part of the play. So this production begins in a tent, but it doesn’t stay there for long. Each scene of Richard III takes place at a different location on the grounds, moving into the skeletal remains of the old PFI. After each scene, the audience is marched into a different section of the ruins, where it bivouacs briefly, enjoys a scene of Shakespeare, and then moves on.
If you haven’t been to Movable Shakespeare—this was this reviewer’s first time—prepare for something different. Some of Baltimore’s DIY theaters have offered audiences the chance to slip from one room to another, but this production features a dizzying number of scene changes, so the standing room-only audience is, literally, standing for most of the production, shuttling from one room to the other.
There’s a reason the actors haven’t been mentioned yet. The Patapsco Female Institute, by the end, plays an essential, even overwhelming role in this production. As Richard (Vince Eisenson) snatches the kingship from a disintegrating ruling coalition of corrupt toadies and aging courtiers, we explore every dark corner of the crumbling institute itself. We experience it as a prison, a stadium, and a fortress. It also takes on the character of a bombarded building in the middle of the Great War: Clouds of nerve gas flow in and out of empty windows and rolls of barbed wire glitter in the darkness. The World War I motifs don’t really resonate in the production, so every once in a while it seems that Gallanar brings them to the fore. The effect is that of an exhaustive march through the nooks and crannies of Richard’s complex, labyrinthine brain.
The bastard king himself is an odd case. Vince Eisenson’s greasy-haired version is chipper and even unsettlingly charming, an odd combination of Donald Rumsfeld and Pee -wee Herman. He has a competitive, bouncing energy as he steers his enemies (and allies) to their doom. The darkness and devouring ambition usually associated with Richard is less apparent here. Instead, he seems to be amazed at his own good fortune as he succeeds in backstabbing his closest allies and wooing the women he least deserves to marry.
As the audience moves from one encampment to the next, the tragedy of Richard III is almost a fun house, where ghoulish lords wrestle for power in one room and innocent children are slaughtered in another. Richard occasionally peeks in through a window. The effect is mosaic: The audience—or at least those in the rear—experiences the scenes as fragmented glimpses into this violent history, postcards from the battleground.
In addition to Eisenson’s bizarrely attractive Richard, there are several outstanding performances. As the Duke of Buckingham, Scott Alan Small is an overwhelming presence. He goads Richard into seeking the throne and then fires the audience up as they warm to the idea of Richard III. As Catesby, Richard’s effective chief of staff, Jonas Grey delivers the most compelling performance of the evening, pouring poisoned words in Richard’s ear, doing Richard’s dirty work. Hastings (Dave Gamble) and Rivers (Frank Moorman) add an interesting note as two aging, waffling schemers who’ve lost their mojo. Richard’s brother Clarence, meanwhile, gets played against type by Ron Heneghan. He’s usually a hapless victim of his younger brother. Here, he’s bearded and physically imposing and goes down fighting.
A shout-out goes to the entire cast for gamely and professionally tackling what is a truly imposing task: keeping the play on track while on the move. On opening weekend, the logistics of the production were still in the process of being ironed out.
The sold-out audience at a recent production took that all in stride. Most knew what was in store and there was a sense of mutual discovery, as when the audience is able to view Richard’s own appearance before the crowd as he is persuaded to take the crown. The Earl of Buckingham prods him, and we, the audience, swallow whatever he says as the drama of convincing Richard that he’s a leader overwhelms all other considerations.
In another stunning moment, we’re in the middle of Richard’s fight with his mother. She is virtually disowning her son, and he pretends innocence and anguish as he takes her blows. There are many memorable moments like this one.
But there are also clear disadvantages to the movable approach. For one, the constant movement robs the play of most of its pathos. The young princes die and the mothers mourn, but the audience isn’t given much time to mull over their deaths. In one scene, the audience is led over the Tower of London, where they look down at the princes awaiting their death. Then Catesby briskly shoves any stragglers along.
Atmospherics also compete with acting, and usually the atmospherics wind up ahead. The explosive intensity of Richard III is largely lost in the process of extensive bivouacking, as audience members are repeatedly instructed to move on to the next encampment. Narrow passageways and a full house don’t always work smoothly: Audience members at the back of the lines often arrive in the middle of scenes. And as a result of the large crowd, a few scenes were cut, and a few transitions eased. This production fascinates and occasionally annoys but, as Richard (and Donald Rumsfeld, for that matter) would probably remind us, you go to war with the army you have.
Richard III will be performed at the patapsco female Institute Historic park through Oct. 28. For more information, visit chesapeakeshakespeare.com.
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