An 'epic' production

In-the-round staging pulls audience into the drama of “Richard III”

With dramatic choir music, eerily colored lights and a stage with a seemingly endless number of trap doors, the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. spared no expense in its recent production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” creating a show that can only be described as epic.

The performance gave life to King Richard III’s brutal rise to power. Richard’s disturbing and murderous actions know no bounds — the play opens with the king conspiring to have his younger brother killed. From then on, the play is a series of death and destruction, as Richard seizes the crown and simultaneously becomes more alienated from and loathed by the people and noblemen around him.

The most notable quality of the show was the in-the-round staging. The audience sat on all sides, surrounding the stage almost claustrophobically. However, the actors of the show used this to their advantage, creating an intensely intimate performance. Richard’s character even seemed to realize he had an audience; he directly spoke to certain members and, at one point, offered a strawberry to a man in a seat near me. Actors moved beyond the stage, even performing in the seating areas.

The one downside to this staging is that certain seats did not provide a full view of the stage and action. Unfortunately, I had one of these seats, though the ticket office did warn me at purchase that my view would be “partially obstructed.” Overall, though, this did not detract too much from the experience; I only missed seeing the action on one corner of the stage and from some of the balconies.

The stage design and costumes were a mix of “Game of Thrones” and “The Matrix,” with some Renaissance designs thrown in for good measure. Richard wore leather pants and a long black coat. Queen Elizabeth strutted about the stage in a slinky black corset and red dress, while Queen Anne donned more traditional Shakespearean garb. The murderers were decked out in modern body armor. It made for a mishmash of design, but actually worked — the characters seemed to exist in an otherworldly space, apart from our universe.

The Folger stage itself is a masterpiece, with a stained glass-style design hiding trap doors that Richard and the murderers employed to add dramatic effect. Characters were smothered, choked and drowned — then thrown into the pits of the stage, blue light eerily radiating upward from the holes. In an incredibly creepy scene near the end of the play, the ghosts of the dead appeared out of the holes of the stage.

The show’s acting proved a strong anchor to the performance. Richard shoulders the majority of the production, appearing in almost every scene. Drew Cortese masterfully portrays a Richard oozing with deceitfulness and charisma. Julia Motyka commands the stage as Queen Elizabeth, and Naomi Jacobson’s portrayal of the mad Queen Margaret sends shivers down your spine.

Overall, the Folger’s production of “Richard III” made the long car trip and frustrating D.C. traffic well worth it. The dramatic, disturbing and arresting quality of this production proves that Shakespearean plays are anything but dull.

Published February 11, 2014 in Arts and Entertainment, tableau

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