This Is B&B
Shakespeare is done on a small stage with minimal costuming and effects. Actors not involved in a given scene sit in chairs around the perimeter of the action. We’re all in on the action backstage and onstage. Actors pop in and out of roles without breaking pace. Every performance a different actor is designated to get drunk over the course of the show with a series of shots of liquor. This is a Bard & Bourbon show. If it sounds like great fun, it is. As evidenced by their current production of Richard III, it’s even fun when it’s not terribly brilliant.
Richard III on the cover of GQ
It’s the story of a twisted and scheming villain who twists and schemes his way onto the throne of England before everything collapses beneath him. The text refers to a brutal, ugly man who personified a brutal, ugly reign. B&B has Ian Tully playing Richard. Ian Tully is great with Shakespeare. A very strong presence. Not exactly one that would be associated with traditional depictions of Richard, though. Tully is...attractive. And it's like... a near-GQ-level attractive. Feed the guy through Photoshop with the right lighting from the right angles and he'd be there on a coffee table all glossy and smelling like scent strip ads. Here it's a little different, though. Aside from a slight limp and a little bit of padding for a hunchback, this is a traditional Shakespearian hero stage presence in the service of someone more commonly portrayed as a twisted monster, which is a bit unpleasantly disorienting. And not necessarily in a good way.
But It Kind of Works
It might have just been opening night, but Tully seemed a bit inert until Richard took the throne. The fact that he’s not being overly dramatic with comically exaggerated villainy is respectable, but Tully plays Richard almost...bored with his own scheme. Large portions of the first half of the show sort of...sag into his performance. I like the passionless disinterest as a premise, though, and it would have been fun to see Tully really lean-into it.
Here’s the idea: Richard is so totally confident that he’ll gain the throne that he’s utterly bored with it and THAT is what everyone finds so repellent about him. He confronts Anne to try to woo her with a dull disinterest for everything including his own life when he lifelessly shrugs and puts a dagger to his throat because, y’know, why bother? She relents out of pity and disgust. This continues to happen scene after scene with every step of his plan. Everyone’s so totally put off by him that he just sort of...becomes king. I think it could work. (Sadly: it kind of feels like we’re headed that way with the U.S. presidency, but I digress.)
As it is, Tully’s performance is pretty solid regardless. Then Richard takes the crown and he’s got a powerfully pretty sort of a dark anti-hero about him that serves the production well. After Richard gets the crown, Tully occasionally dazzles as a dark anti-hero. It’s quite a transformation. I don’t know if I really think of it as being a Richard III, though...
Gender is Really Weird When You Think About It
Oh...and about that wooing of Anne: Anne is played by a guy. Dylan Sladky plays Anne as a...person. There’s no attempt made to go along with conventional stage man-playing-woman affectations. This is actually really, really refreshing because it gets to the heart of who Anne and Richard are. Richard is a disgusting person who is trying to woo Anne for political gain and Anne is understandably disgusted having been interrupted while mourning the loss of family. There doesn’t HAVE to be anything sexual going on here because there isn’t and yet...I really like the strength of some of Shakespeare’s women and I love it when the right Anne puts Richard in his place...and still falls for his machinations. We all know he’s doomed anyway, but it’s a fascinating scene and it just feels a bit weird with two aesthetically powerful presences that are aesthetically powerful in the same way.
Speaking of which, Samantha Martinson is formidable as Brackenbury--the lieutenant of the Tower of London when Richard sends his killers for Clarence. I say again: Samantha Martinson is formidable. She’s short and petite...4 foot tall or something like that, but she’s got gravity about her in the role of a physically imposing guy even as one of the killers is a towering Sean Duncan who is at least like . . . 8 foot tall in comparison. Martinsek is given possibly the widest range to work with in the cast, playing Brackenbury, a very ingratiating toady of a politician as the Lord Mayor of London and at least one precocious boys (along with a similarly mercurial Maura Atwood who...if I’m not mistaken plays a prince in one scene and the assassin who kills him in another...both of these and Queen Margaret in one show for one actress, who carries it off wonderfully.)
And About That Murder
Sean Duncan plays a few different roles here, but he’s most memorable as one of the two murderers sent off to kill Clarence in the tower. He’s a tall, slimy low-level thug with a very textured approach to the text that gives it a lot of life. Amber Regan provides back-up quite nicely as a skittish sociopath sent to aid in the murder. The show is peppered with cleverly composed moments like the death of Clarence, but his murder is one of the more memorable scenes. Bryant Mason plays the victim in that scene--a man who doesn’t live long after being awakened by his killers. That always struck me as a difficult place to be as an actor, but Mason gives the drama of that scene the right kind of balance.
It All Comes Together in the End
The final battle at Bosworth Field has a nice pacing and lead-in. Tully delivers the pre-battle speech as Richard to one side of the audience while Maggie Arndt delivers a speech to the other side as the opposing Earl of Richmond who is destined to dispatch Richard. Director Katie Merriman does a really good job of delivering the intensity of that decisive battle to the stage and those pre-battle speeches feel particularly amped-up. It doesn’t hurt that Arndt is really good as the hero here. Richmond shows-up only briefly and isn’t given a whole lot of time to develop a suitably commanding heroic presence onstage. Arndt makes the commanding presence of heroism look really, really easy. She’s radiant...casually beaming with benevolent authority without giving it any comical tinge of egotism. This is a nice welcome back for Arndt. Her bio says she’s been off the stage for nearly ten years. You wouldn’t know it.
Bard & Bourbon’s staging of Richard III runs through June 2 at the Tenth Street Theatre on 628 N. 10th St. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard & Bourbon online.