Cecilia is a director and writer in Philadelphia.
So! What’s in my pockets? I love Shakespeare, the way you love an on-again-off-again lover or a temperamental pet cat, which is to say that about thirty percent of the time he makes me really mad. I have seen Richard III a whole bunch of times. It’s a show I struggle with—I think it has some great characters and Richard’s villainy is kind of delicious and fun to indulge in, but I think his unabashed evilness sometimes gets a little too mustache-twirly and repetitive and I lose interest.
There are many interesting, praiseworthy things going on in Mechanical Theater’s production now running in Laurel Hill Cemetery, directed by Josh Hitchens and starring Ryan Walter. I came to the show last Friday night looking to learn something new about the show, to see it thrown into a fresh light, and there were definitely moments that were successful on that front, including a bold ending that I’m still wrapping my mind around. But ultimately I found myself wishing that these moments were united by a stronger overall concept and a clear argument for why this play still matters.
I had never been to Laurel Hill Cemetery before last week. It is, like, overwhelmingly gorgeous, and I was so happy to be spending my evening there. The show itself took place pretty deep into the cemetery and the walk to the space on a rather warm summer night made me feel open to the experience of watching the show in a way I wasn’t expecting. It made me so joyful.
At first, the cemetery seemed like a natural choice to stage a show like Richard III—one of the first scenes in the play features a funeral procession, and murder runs rampant through the plot—but I felt like the atmosphere could have been used a little more effectively. The performance space was clear of gravestones, and the performers never walked among them. In fact, there were a few graves right in front of the playing space which felt like a barrier between the audience and the performers. I found myself disengaging from the action because of the graves rather than connecting to the atmosphere, and when, at a climactic moment in the show, the actors tried to elicit a vocal audience reaction, it seemed like the rest of the audience felt a little disconnected too. A huge mausoleum was used for entrances and exits, sometimes for ghostly effect and sometimes to evoke a funereal atmosphere, but sometimes just for quick changes.
The design of the piece was really minimal (No designer was credited ~editor). There was some recorded music at the top of the show and at the climactic end of act three. The costumes were simple, used mainly to distinguish between characters (almost every actor in the cast of six played at least two parts). Up until the end of the show, when the sun set, the show employed only natural light; for the last few scenes, some small flashlights were used really effectively to highlight the actors faces. I appreciated the simple aesthetic, but I wish that the design provided more footholds into the story that Hitchens and the cast were telling. Richard III is a complicated play with a ton of characters, and the action moves quickly from the Tower of London to the court to the battlefield. Some stronger design choices to indicate place, class, and time period would have helped clarify some of the action, I think.
The actors all played the text effectively and clearly. They used wireless microphones, which I wish they had done without—they made their voices sound grainy and there would be some feedback that made it hard to understand the text. At one point, an actor’s mic went out entirely for a speech and I was still able to hear from where I was. Throughout much of the play, which, to be fair, does have really high emotional stakes and heavy drama, the actors played their anger by shouting. The yelling in the microphones really turned me off, I found it hard to settle into what the actors were saying.
The show was dramatically cut so that it ran at a tight 90 minutes or so, with no intermission. I was really, really impressed by the way the cast drove through the text, and kept the pace of the show flying. Dragged out, self-indulgent Shakespeare is one of my least favorite things. However, I think that the pace was so steady and so quick throughout that I really didn’t get a sense of what Hitchens wanted to emphasize in the action. Almost everything was given the same weight, and it was hard to know the moments that were important to grasp onto. The play details Richard’s plotting and the carrying out of the murder of his enemies, but the plot flew by so quickly that I didn’t find myself affected by these murders as they flew by. Some of the cuts made to the text also really muddied my understanding of characters’ development. A scene that features Richard’s former ally Buckingham being led to execution is absent, as are the scenes featuring Richard’s young nephews who he later sends to the Tower once he gains the crown.
There were strong moments, however—moments that enlivened the play in ways I had never seen. There is a scene featuring a guileless Mayor of London (Loretta Vasile) totally buying all the pretty obvious bullshit that Richard and Buckingham (Megan Edelman) are selling her. The Mayor’s gullible acceptance of the villains’ bold lies immediately brought to my mind a certain Republican presidential candidate—the way his falsehoods are so huge, so obvious, and so clear, yet they hardly slowly him down. Richard’s encounter with his mother, the Duchess of York, was also a scene that took me by surprise—up until that point, I felt that Walter was playing Richard’s delicious villainy, but wasn’t showing us many cracks in his clever facade. Seeing his vulnerability at his mother’s disavowal finally gave me a sense of what made the bloody king tick. The show’s final moments were unlike any I’d seen in previous productions of the play. I won’t go into too much detail about it, because spoilers, but it took the play out of the realm of English political drama and into the hauntings, psychological or spiritual, of Richard’s tortured, guilty mind.
And who was the villainous king haunted by? In this version, a lot of ladies. The piece featured a several women playing male roles as women. The title “Lord” given to the characters in Shakespeare’s text was changed to “Lady” in this iteration. That choice raised a lot of questions for me about where female power rested in this show—it was nice to see a version of the text where women are successful politically not just because of who they’re married to. It was also great to see women go toe-to-toe with the titular anti-hero, since the play features so many of the female characters tricked and driven into tragedy by him. I was especially moved by Neena Boyle’s Queen Elizabeth—her movement from haughty assuredness to devastation to rage was powerful, and the scene that featured her, Queen Margaret (Rachel Gluck), and Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York (Loretta Vasile) mourning their losses and expressing their rage was brutal and effective.
Overall, there were standout moments throughout the production, several strong performances, and Laurel Hill Cemetery is a gorgeous place to see a show. There were moments that surprised me and moved me. I only wish the show had been held together with a stronger unified concept, and that the boldness of its strongest moments was present throughout all of its scenes. I found myself leaning back in the grass and listening; I wanted the show to make me lean forward and stare.