Back in 1999, The Washington Post talked about director Molly Smith’s production of Paula Vogel’s “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing” at the Arena Stage this way: “Smith has tricked up [the production] with a film-clip accompaniment that visually competes with and finally defeats the actors.” I wrote about the production for Style at the time (here’s a link to the review, though it doesn’t seem to want to work for me) and had kind of the same thought.
I couldn’t help but think of this production when I saw “Richard III” at Henley Street last Friday. One reason was just the visual effect: the Arena back in 1999 was adorned with video screens of various sizes just like Pine Camp. The difference with “Throbbing” was that, as I remember it, some of the filmed pieces played at the same time as action was happening on stage, which was very distracting.
As director James Ricks has staged “Richard,” the video clips are mostly discreet from the onstage action but there is competition just the same. The segments are brilliant with cameo performances by folks like Joe Pabst, Dawn Westbrook, Jacquie O’Connor, Thomas Nowlin, Bo Wilson, and more. I particularly liked the Press Conference clip as I thought it most seamlessly conflated the technology with the plot.
But, as I said in my review, I thought the smoothness and seamlessness of these video segments sets up a contrast with what happens after them and it’s not always a flattering one. The convincing settings in the video segments contrast with the completely bare stage set. The witty and well-rehearsed video performances contrast with a few onstage performances that I thought were a bit wooden or awkward.
In his director’s notes, Mr. Ricks makes some insightful comments about television’s “stimulating maneuverability.” I think the challenge in mixing video and theater involves effectively marrying the stimulating maneuverability of the one medium, with the stimulating immediacy of the other. For them to work in tandem, I think an audience member needs to be as impressed by what he/she sees on stage as they are by what’s on the screen. This was one of the reasons I was ambivalent about the staging of the many executions in shadow. If one of the strengths of live theater is seeing real people go through stuff before your eyes, this staging removed that element of immediacy from the production.
I love modern contextualization of Shakespeare: it can be delightful. I still have fond memories of some of the first productions at the Boulders that I saw done by (what was then) Encore! Theatre. The two guys in full “Baywatch” gear, complete with theme music, was one of my favorite moments (can’t quite remember what play it was in though…). And Mr. Ricks and his team pay attention to details: Eric Evans playing the DS was pretty priceless as was the inclusion of a cell phone in at least one scene. But this modernization somehow did not seem quite complete, and maybe lack of set was part of the problem. When you have queens, dukes, and lords going at each other (and talking about towers and such), it’s easiest to picture them in castle courtyards, not necessarily in boardrooms or at Starbucks.
There is no denying the power of Mr. Wichmann’s performance; he is stunning. His physical command of the character is impressive and he also does magnificent things with his voice. I could ramble on at length about what he does but I did so in my review. What I’ll add here is a note of concern or maybe a vague wish: I’d love to see Scott play a somewhat regular person and really make me believe his performance. I remember feeling that way about the characters he portrayed in “Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop.” Characters that are somehow bigger than life – King Richard, Nathan Detroit, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf – he has done amazing things with. But just playing a regular guy and making him believable and/or interesting – something actors like Steve Perigard and Duke Lafoon excel at – can be just as hard, sometimes even harder.
After Scott, Margarette Joyner obviously made the biggest impression on me. I have loved Melissa Johnston Price in many things but I found her Elizabeth a bit hysterical until her compelling final face-off with newly crowned king. Adam Mincks also did a fine job, but I would have liked to see more of his growing realization of Richard’s evil. It seemed more of a black-white thing once the nephews were killed. Rebecca Anne Muhleman was awesome as Anne and it’s a shame that her Anne is killed off relatively early. More Anne / Richard face-off would have been thrilling.
I don’t know if it was me, the play or the production, but I had never realized how Richard’s evil strategy seems to devolve into “just kill everyone in his way.” Maybe we’ll put that one on the Bard. But the clever schemer at the beginning of the play seems like little more than a ruthless thug by the end. Maybe that’s the point.
One last shout-out has to go to Frank Creasy who rocks a great wig during much of his stage time. It doesn’t quite match Scott’s performance as a “must see” aspect to compel people to see this production, but it’s pretty close!