Sunday, November 12, 2017

Richard, Cubed

A typical rehearsal look.
Actors who perform the classics are likely, if they've been around long enough, to appear more than once in certain plays.  Two weeks ago, I closed Richard III for the third time.  I was always a bridesmaid in these productions; I hoped to play Richard himself for years, but the chance never came.  Instead, I've had to be satisfied by playing various supporting characters in various productions. 
Jack played R3, from his own adaptation, and
directed the thing too. I was thrilled to be
invited to play his Buckingham.

My first encounter with the hunchback who had misplaced his horse was back in <gulp> 1999. My buddy Jack Young, at the time the artistic director of the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, SC, invited me to join his production of the play, in which he was to both star and direct.  It was a herculean task, in my opinion, but if anyone could accomplish it, Jack was the man.
This tableau, or a similar one, opens just about every production of Richard III, though Shakespeare did not write it.  In his original, the play opens with Richard alone onstage, lamenting his fate and revealing his plans to the audience. Modern directors are convinced this is a weak beginning, and wastes a chance to illustrate the arrogant power of the Yorks who have, seemingly, won the Wars of the Roses. So every production of R3 you are likely to see will begin with this family's revels (or procession or coronation or whatnot), followed by Shakespeare's original opening.
Christina Keefe, a great friend from grad school
suggested I play Buckingham. She played mad
Queen Margaret, a brute of a role which is
sometimes cut from American productions, as
she serves no dramatic purpose and is confusing
to viewers unfamiliar with the dynastic
entanglements of the Wars of the Roses.

My grad school comrade Christina Keefe, Jack's wife and the leading lady of his theatre, had suggested he hire me for the show.  I was told that my name first came up to play the small comic role of the Mayor of London; Christina wondered why Jack would waste me on such a minor character, considering he would have to hire me as an out of town actor, and provide lodging and transportation for me as well.

This gal played the Mayor, a role I was later to play. Twice.
They agreed I should play the much larger role of the Duke of Buckingham, Richard's co-conspirator and later, betrayer. Depending on the adaptation, Buckingham usually turns out to be the show's second male lead.

Buckingham ends the play being led to
his execution. This photo was on my
 Christmas Card that year.

I have to admit that I don't have many specific memories of the experience at The Warehouse. I recall I spent a lot of time working the text; Buckingham was the largest Shakespearean role I had played to date.  He is definitely one of those roles which I would like to attempt again, now that I'm more <ahem> seasoned.  
Our star was not the only one with a hump.  Our stage had one too. We played in-the-round, with a misshaped hill in the center as the defining scenic element. 

Fourteen years later, Richard III reentered my life. 
After a prelude lifted from Henry VI, Part III (a prequel of sorts to Richard III), my second R3 began with a procession of the royal family down the stairs of the playing space, through the audience . I'm up top, in the beard and white tie.
Richard's opening "Winter of our discontent..." speech was
delivered, in part, through a bullhorn as a political stump
speech. In all the productions of R3 I've seen, I don't believe
I've ever seen one which begins as Shakespeare intended: a
solitary figure limps onto a bare stage, turns to the crowd and
tells them his plan. Too dull for modern audiences I suppose.
Even Olivier began his iconic film version with pageantry.
And McKellen's film begins with a tank breaking through
a wall; his opening speech doesn't show up until scene 4.
I had only been in my New York apartment a few months when I responded to a casting call for Hudson Warehouse, a company which produced classic (mostly Shakespeare) shows outside in Riverside Park.  

I never really adjusted to the weather issues, but I have
to admit, when the sun is setting on your face, it gives
the performance a glow which I've never felt from
artificial lighting.
It's probably lucky that I had not, at the time, experienced how hot New York summers got, especially if you're dressed in business suits spouting classical text, but I had never spent a summer in NY, so I assumed hey, if Joe Papp can attract all that A-List talent to do Shakespeare in the Park every year, the climate must be tolerable.

The playing space used by Hudson Warehouse is huge, well-suited for big Shakespearean epics (if not for acoustics, which are as you might imagine). I wrote about trying to meet the challenges of this space here and here.

As the clueless Mayor of London.
Just as so many years earlier, it was the role of the Mayor for which I was initially engaged at Hudson Warehouse. Shortly before rehearsal began, an additional role became available, that of Richard's brother, the Duke of Clarence.  It was possible to play both roles, and it was a terrific pairing.  

Clarence is led to the Tower by
Brakenbury, a minor character whom I
was to play in my next R3. The irony of
this shot only became apparent recently;
I conquered this scene when I was
playing Clarence for HW, but in the
smaller role of Brakenbury for Titan,
I repeatedly fell short.
Clarence has a strong dramatic presence in the early scenes of R3, including a speech about a dream, full of imagery and dramatical moments.  After this speech, Clarence is murdered, but not without a fight (and plenty of blood. Hudson Warehouse loves to work with blood). I loved the fact that, in our version, Clarence did not simply accept his fate, but instead fought back as best he could. His slaughter was inevitable, and very fun to play.
The murder of Clarence is written to be performed offstage, but Hudson Warehouse had other ideas. During rehearsal, we were wondering how to get my lifeless corpse off the stage when I joked that I could simply be tossed over the wall. Everyone looked at each other, and a dynamic fight sequence was born. This became my favorite moment in the play.
After this very bloody scene, I cleaned up myself as best as possible in order to return to the stage as the Mayor, perhaps the only specifically comic role in Richard III.  After getting a few laughs in a few scenes, I donned the bloody t-shirt in which Clarence had been murdered in order to reappear as his ghost, haunting his brother.  The juxtaposition of these two roles, one dramatic and one comic, was great fun to play, making this my favorite overall experience with any of my R3s.
There were no artificial lights used outside at Hudson Warehouse, merely a few streetlamps of questionable efficiency.  As the sun set, the play reached the sequence in which Richard is haunted by the ghosts of all whom he has murdered. I made my ghostly entrance by climbing the wall over which I had been tossed, reappearing with bloody shirt and a score to settle.
My third go-round with Richard III ended only a few weeks ago.  
Let's Partaay! Titan's production also opened with the royals celebrating their success, before brother Richard hobbles on to spoil everyone's fun.
I have worked repeatedly with Titan Theatre in Queens since arriving in NY six years ago (in fact, they afforded me my NYC debut, I wrote about that here), so when artistic director Lenny asked me to join his production of Richard III, I agreed.  
This was my only R3 which used actual kids to play the
young Princes in the Tower (you know, the ones who get
murdered). On the wall, you can see the major motif of
Titan's R3: each time somebody bites the dust, our "hero"
paints a line to keep score.

I was once again to play the Mayor; this time the role was doubled with that of Brakenbury, a minor official in the royal court whose primary duties seemed to be keeping the keys to the Tower.  
I mentioned on social media that Brakenbury is the guy who is always standing next to the person who's talking. I did a lot of "active listening" in the role. I also disappointed myself greatly. My lack of focus in this character led to several <ahem> senior moments, during which my mouth refused to do what my brain instructed, and the scene had to be rescued by other actors. I have never had such trouble onstage before, and I remain perplexed as to why my brain built a wall around this particular moment.  It was embarrassing the first time it happened; when it happened a second time, I had officially humiliated myself.
This is a selfie I took in the dressing room, of
the Mayor. I had to take a selfie because there
was scant photographic evidence I was in this
production. It became a running gag that I did
not appear in any rehearsal photos nor any
promotional materials nor any Instagram
entries. So if I wanted a picture of myself
as the Mayor, I had to take it myself.
I brought a few new touches to the role of the Mayor, but overall, my performance in Titan's Richard III was not one to celebrate.  It was the most limited amount of stage time I had experienced since playing a nameless fishseller in Volpone at the Shakespeare Theatre Company back in 1996.  I had to admit that I was working my way DOWN the ladder of importance, role-wise, in this play: from the costarring villain Buckingham in my first R3, to the satisfying supporting role of Clarence in my second R3, to the most recent endeavor playing that guy who is always hanging around on the sidelines.
The Duke of Clarence pleads innocence, in Hudson Warehouse's Richard III (my second). I would welcome the chance to play this guy again, as well as the Duke of Buckingham (from my first R3). I'm afraid I have no desire to revisit my third R3, in which I was a major disappointment to myself.
Another backstage selfie: Lord Brakenbury.
We were not a good match.
After our final performance, most of the cast remained behind to help with the show's strike, but I slipped out into the rain, to take the 15 minute walk from the theatre to the subway station.  As I trudged along, getting wetter and wetter ("My kingdom for an umbrella!"), I had to admit this was an ignominious but fitting end to a theatrical experience in which I had disappointed myself so thoroughly.  Not all artistic endeavors can be personal triumphs, but when it's a personal failure, the aftertaste is sour.  It will be a while before I attempt my fourth Richard III.