I am by no means a Shakespeare purist. One of the beauties about artistic expression is that no two productions of the same text will be identical. While there is much that can be said for the authenticity of producing Shakespeare in the traditional Elizabethan manner, we have now moved forward over 400 years. That 400 years of history allows for plenty of new, interesting, and modern interpretations of Shakespearian plays, many of which can be moving, illuminating, and inspiring.
Texas State University-San Marcos Department of Theatre and Dance's current production of Richard III borrows heavily from recent and modern history, and while many of the unconventional choices pay off, some are a bit puzzling. Still, with its strong leading players, Richard III gives us an exciting and entertaining look at one of the most ruthless and evil leaders of all time.
I am very hesitant to criticize the direction of Chuck Ney, a man with a PhD who is currently writing a book titled Directing Shakespeare in America. Clearly this man is an expert at what he does, and many of his directorial choices are inspired and serve the play well. Ney's casting of African American actors in many of the lead and supporting roles is quite effective. His decision to offer a prologue in which Richard proudly reviews video footage of his murderous conquests is fun to watch and immediately thrusts us into this dark, dangerous, and violent world. In addition, Ney's decision to set the play in an undisclosed third world country, presumably in Africa, is a bold but smart choice. Doing so puts Shakespeare's tale of revenge and the use of violence to attain power into a framework that we can understand. We've seen similar nonsensical violence in areas like Somalia.
Still, even geniuses have occasional missteps. While the setting of a warring African nation is a fantastic idea, Ney's specificity of setting the entire play within an airport in that African nation is confusing. Even after speaking with Ney about his choice, I'm still confused. It just feels like a metaphor I just don't understand. Unlike many of Ney's other choices, the airport idea doesn't serve the story or characters. Indeed, there are times where the choice leads to some bizarre questions, such as "So is this battlefield in act two also within the airport?" and "How on earth did that severed head in a handbag get through security?"
Though the choice of setting may be worrisome, the design of it is fantastic. Michelle Ney's set design is exactly what you'd expect of a third world airport. It's bleak, cold, and looks as if it was built 40 or 50 years ago and is in dire need of renovation. Lighting designer Sarah EC Maines provides some very stark, bright lighting, the likes of which you'd find in most airports, but her lighting in the dream/nightmare scene in the final act is moody and breathtaking. And the original score by Christopher Fordinal adds to the play with its mix of military drums and African rhythms and sounds.
The cast, for the most part, excels as well. It's apparent that some of the young actors are a bit intimidated by Shakespearian language, but when they relax and just speak the words as if it were a more modern play, they shine. Stand-outs include Alex Zeto as the mournful Queen Elizabeth, a woman who loses almost everyone she loves and Jacqueline Guillen as Lady Anne, the widow who is forced into marrying the evil Richard. Nadine Mozon is extraordinary as the deposed Queen Margaret. She's tortured, angry, and banished, but still strong and resilient. While you sympathize for her misery, you'd certainly be frightened to be around her. But the true star is Eugene Lee as Richard. He plays Richard with exceptional intensity. Through Lee's sneers and smiles, you can tell that Richard delights in every murder and ploy that he exercises to secure the crown.
Despite one puzzling directorial choice, Richard III is overall a fine production of one of Shakespeare's most interesting histories.
Running time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
RICHARD III, produced by Texas State University - San Marcos Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the University Mainstage Theatre now thru Sunday, February 17th. Performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 2pm.
Tickets are $12 general and $7 students.
For tickets and information, please visit http://www.theatreanddance.txstate.edu/Productions/2012-2013.html