“A man who searches out and destroys everything from a rage that can’t be controlled until, eventually, it consumes him.” That’s how director Alberto Bonilla describes Shakespeare’s towering royal spectre, Richard III, adding: “Richard III is a punk to me: a man who is fighting change, time and the next generation.”
When it’s put that way, it makes a squirmy kind of sense to portray Richard as an actual punk, and that’s what the Queens Players have done, casting the intense Richard Mazda (the company’s founding force) in the title role and setting the play in and around a 1980s London punk rock club with a live hollering soundtrack played by actor-musicians.
It’s no gimmick. Full thought and preparation went into creating the dark, half-chaotic ambience, with political and rock posters baked onto the walls, an old telephone ringing to deliver the news of off-stage events, and lords and ladies rendered as coke-snorting, pill-popping, black-lipsticked rowdies in carefully torn punk-era fetish clothing. The cockney accents are all over the place and in some cases barely attempted, but enough of the scenes are actually played for laughs that the whole production takes on a put-on quality and I quickly stopped being distracted by the inconsistency.
That’s right, I said “played for laughs.” That’s the actual genius of this staging, directed by Bonilla, abridged (as Richard III almost always is) by dramaturge Charles Baker, lit smartly by Dan Jobbins, costumed by Sue Waller, and quickened by a number of memorable performances.
The mercurial Mazda seems to have been born to play the resentful royal murderer, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and fascinating creations. Setting each word and phrase in its own tiny vacuum lit by its own spark, he hobbles energetically about brandishing his twisted arm, his hunchback suggested only by a spiny jacket. “Am I king? ‘Tis so. But Edward lives.” Larger than life but also grotesquely natural, this Richard shades almost unnoticeably from the smooth-talking conniver who can successfully woo the just-widowed Lady Anne (Brittany Brook) into the befuddled monarch who sends his servant on a mission forgetting to tell him the errand, and finally into the pummeled fragment of a man futilely offering “my kingdom for a horse.” Until the end, his shell cracks briefly only when the Duchess his mother tells him she’s had no happiness from him. The moment offers a telling revelation of Richard’s persistent if fully corrupted humanity. Mazda’s is also a performance that strikes a wise balance between the dominating force Shakespeare’s Richard can be and the weaselly villain bound for comeuppance.
Also standing out among the able cast is John Cormier, whose prison scene as Richard’s brother Clarence recounting his paranoid dreams and then confronting his comically hesitant murderers (Samantha Maurice and Benjamin Russell) is a tour de force of a delicious ham and cheese sandwich I won’t soon forget. Al Foote III makes the dying, grieving King Edward both grumpily sympathetic and Falstaffishly entertaining. Kudos too to Ryan Halsavy, hilarious in the small role of the servant Catesby. And all three of the main women characters are given prominence to stress how Shakespeare has written them as the only ones to openly defy Richard. Deanna Gibson’s Queen Elizabeth is spellbinding in the long late scene in which she faces off against Richard and his scheme to woo her daughter, matching him barb for barb and sneer for sneer. The pair make this the climactic scene of the second half.
Various set pieces and comic bits work well, too: Richard, asked “Tomorrow will it please you to be crowned?”, calling for his calendar-book; Lady Anne wearing a black gown to marry him as the band hammers out a quick rendition of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding”; and Richard’s final battle scene. I had trouble only with the scene in which the ghosts of his murder victims return to accuse him as he sleeps, because the way it was sung obscured the words.
There isn’t as much humor in the second half as in the first, but the tone never sinks into solemnity. Instead we watch Richard’s fast decline with ever-increasing fascination, and the pace never drags. This isn’t your typical Richard III, but it’s up-to-date, feels hyperactive but not forced, and seethes with the music of tragedy. It runs through March 15 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens.