21st Century Richard III Underground Downtown
There's a simple synth score playing before Voices Found Repertory's staging of Shakespeare's Richard III. Clean, primal tones evoke a feeling of intensity in a cozy space. It's a fitting intro for an intimate, little staging of high drama that holds all of its central gravity without bearing much of the burden of superfluous details that can so often bog-down a Shakespeare show.
The costuming is largely black. Bare feet race across a blackened stage. The lighting is very simple. Stark. Almost brutal. But also beautiful in its brutality. The friction and gravity of the ensemble’s dynamic painstakingly hurls the drama across the stage in various directions. There's a delicious aggression about the physical action. In a small space, the fight choreography is brought across in vivid combustion. There is frenzied chaos of battle. There is a gentle dance between Richard III and Lady Anne. All of it feels radiantly immediate.
Jennifer Vosters is an attractive, young woman who holds a slight contortion in her left limbs in the role of the sinister Richard III, . There's a dizzyingly dark charisma in her malice. She carries the slight disfigurement of posture with fairly affectionate familiarity. The minor contortion might be an old friend who sometimes embraces her a bit too closely. Her handling of the role is a pleasant contrast to the traditional interpretations of the character. Years ago I saw Lee Ernst at the Rep play him as an impish, little ghoul. More recently I saw him played by David Flores at Off The Wall as a petty, thuggish brute.
Vosters' appearance here is a refreshing portrayal of the villain as a perfectly capable, young woman of remarkably seductive beauty who openly embraces her minor flaws with dismissive affection. When language in Shakespeare’s script makes reference to her deformity, it comes across as a laughably weak excuse for villainous behavior. Its a really interesting glance into the nature of true human malice. Rather than being plagued with and motivated by truly crippling deformity, Vosters’ Richard III comes across as one who really, truly wants to be wicked to people for wickedness’ own sake. The quest for power seems to be one she’s embarking on simply so that she can be cruel to a greater number of people. Without the deformity as a legitimate excuse for villainy, we get a Richard III motivated only by power and influence--which really seems to be an honest echo of those in power in the world at the dawn of the 21st century. It’s a very, very fun performance that casts the character in a far more fascinating light than he is often allowed. Richard III-as-deformed-monster feels dull and silly in an age where physical beauty is exceedingly affordable to the wealthy and powerful. Congratulations to Vosters for playing a deeper kind of emotional ugliness that can lurk behind physical beauty.
The rest of the ensemble moves the drama along with fairly deft dynamic. Jake Russell Thompson is great fun here. He’s chameleonic--switching in phase between three different roles. As Prince Edward he is troubled and innocent. As a hired murderer he is shadowy and vulgar. As Richard’s ally Buckingham he has a refined, Tim Gunn-like precision about his voice and movement. The heroically-bearded Thorin Ketelsen is wildly heroic in a way that accents the production quite well. Sarah Zapiain is equally heroic as the doomed Lady Anne--a character more traditionally played as a victim. Zapiain makes Anne a hero simply in the way she withstands Richard’s advances.
Richard projected his sliminess at Anne...nevertheless, she persisted. (Tacitly reluctant acceptance with no loss of hope. It's a kind of heroism.)
The lack of physical ugliness of Richard in the presence of Lady Anne could have been problematic given the actress/actress dynamic. The production could have inadvertently portrayed woman-seducing-woman as a villainous act in and of itself. Thankfully this is not the case. In their time together onstage Vosters and Zapiain channel something deeper and altogether more resonant than physical disgust in a male/female power dynamic. This might be director Alec Lachman’s greatest accomplishment for the production. Lachman, Vosters and Zapiain manipulate a chemistry between Richard and Lady Anne that draws on attraction, revulsion and something altogether ineffable. Why are so many drawn to power and why do so many want to see them there? It’s a question that plays out in an oddly affectionate homicidal slow dance. The dynamic of that dance echoes through the entire show. It’s not a traditional Richard III. Given the need to reflect the nature of politics and power in the 21st century, that’s a very good thing.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Richard III runs through Feb. 19 at the Arcade Theatre in the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations, visit Voices Found Online