Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Ricks, Wichmann and Company

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!


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with pretty much everything you had to say, but I want to address one big problem. I think Frank and his wig are well worth the price of admission, Scott or not! I wish you had seen the first run with the wig. When that character was killed and the wig went flying, it may have been the funniest thing I have ever seen. So beware Richmond. Frank (and wig) are going to take this town by storm! -Andrew

Frank Creasy said...

Note to self: Never act with children, animals, or wigs.

James thought about staging a separate execution for the wig, which has achieved a life of its' own, but ultimately we felt it would upstage Scott's performance, so it was voted down. Though not by me.

More seriously though: As to the flying wig Andrew mentions during the execution (which did NOT happen the night Dave, Susan H. and a host of others were there Friday): It happened by accident during a dress and James decided to keep it. Ultimately, he's opted to lose that bit of action, since it does diminish Doug Jones' wonderful scene leading up to Lord Hastings' execution. I agreed completely - Doug's scene, IMHO, is just to good to deflate with a goofy sight gag even if it gets me big laughs a la Quentin Tarantino gallows humor.

Still, I'll gladly take the shout out Dave (and thanks for the big belly laugh), as well as Andrew's disagreement on the point...though we all hope folks will find much to enjoy in this show in addition to what is, most surely, a role of a lifetime for Scott. But of course - he will have more to come of those. This show, though, is pretty special to him and to James, who's done a great job in sounding a warning about media manipulation to a 21st century audience through Shakespeare's verse. Pretty cool stuff.

Anonymous said...


You can discredit everything about this show, if you must. But I'll be dipped in moose milk before you pick on my violence scrims...

In Shakespeare, and the Greek tragedies he was emulating, (two theatre forms that didn't use sets) most of the violence occurs off-stage. Richard III is no exception. In fact, Richard is technically the only character who dies on stage.
The thinking behind the 'violence scrims' is attached to this ancient convention, as well as the whole notion your word, 'immediacy' (or lack thereof) of violence in our culture. We only ever see the detached and filtered representation of horrible events on television, rather than the grim reality. So in an attempt to build off the two-dimensional and distancing quality of television, while also presenting something theatrical and live (albeit not as immediate), we threw shadows.
I wanted it to be a visual metaphor, but one can never assume that it will be read that way, I suppose...

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Here come things that I wish someone with thicker skin would say, but I'm just gonna throw it out there and brave the gauntlet (what a martyr am I! hahaha)

Three points I guess I have (since James already defended the scrim deaths, which I totally appreciated in the show for the exact reason that he has already much cooler and more affecting behind a scrim than to happen offstage altogether and then walk on with Macbeth's head. How cool would that be to see him get beheaded behind a scrim!)

Melissa's performance- AMAZING! So clear! So strong! I've been a fan since I saw her a few years ago in The Goat and she was my sole reason for returning after intermission. She unwaveringly makes this clear, strong choices. I finally got to work with her when I was directing a reading of a new play and we had maybe two or three rehearsals and she was doing a fantastic job of reading the stage directions and then appearing in her two scenes as this total b*tch, hard as stone. The night of the first reading, she gets to this big monologue about how she's worked so hard as a woman to get to where she is and she starts breaking down into tears! BRILLIANT, this woman! I walk up to her after and she says, "It just happened. It just came out." "Keep it! It's perfect!" I keep coming back to the clarity of this production (and will again in a sec) but her performance was so clear, textually and otherwise, that I can ask nothing more of that performance.

Now I know I'm going to a place that is not nice, but I feel like I have to say that while Ms. Muhleman was attractive, her performance was nowhere close to approaching awesome. She was by far the weakest of the women. I acknowledge that I am often harsher than most, but I'm frankly astonished that that performance would be called awesome. There are many, many, many young women that are incredibly attractive and damn fine talents, the one quality not to be equated with the other. (I know that has been a point of contention before, but here...)

The third (and last, I promise) thing: I really feel that the production, and specifically James' direction, have not been given a completely fair shake with the reviews. I don't know James very well at all, other than seeing him in Scapino, a few gatherings, and doing the initial table read for Richard III to hear how the cuts were working. But I think it's readily apparent that he has taken on a monumental task and elevated what he had on hand immensely. Henley Street has shown incredible growth since their beginning. (I missed Thoreau but have seen everything since.) With each production from The Spanish Tragedy to Much Ado About Nothing to The Seagull growth has been apparent. But with this production, I think they have surpassed any expectation that might have been in anyone's mind, including Scott's performance, which is certainly the best I have seen him give. This production and the performances of the actors in it would not be what they are without having a pretty damn good director at the helm.

To talk about his "staging" or his "choices" which considering the space and budgetary limitations such a young company must be confined to, greatly diminish what a director really does. Those things are foundation, certainly, they guide the production, but in a way are merely minutiae. The skill and deftness with which he must have worked with his cast in rehearsals, working with text foreign to several if not most of them, leading them to more than one stellar performance (at least three by my count, and several far beyond what I've seen of them otherwise), begs to be acknowledged, even if impossible to pinpoint.

I say kudos to Henley Street for taking the risk with the script, with the concept, with going far out on a limb, stepping up to the plate, hiring a union actor; kudos to Scott for (in my opinion)being at his finest; kudos to James for assembling some great talent and aiding the growth of some fledlging talents.

All things considered, this may prove to be the most impressive show of the Richmond Theatre season. But that comment strikes me as similar to McNally/Ahrens/Flaherty's work in Ragtime:

EMMA GOLDMAN: And although the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906...

ALL: And there were ninety-four years to go!

At any rate, those are my rather impassioned thoughts. If you haven't been out to see it, do yourself a favor and go. Support an incredibly necessary and inspiring new company and experience some great performances and one of the most accessible and understandable productions of Shakespeare's work that I've seen.

Grant Mudge said...


It was "Two Gentlemen of Verona," 1998.

Am also thinking lately of two actors from the RS "Richard" (2003) who are no longer with us: Mary Sue Carroll--a great, fierce Margaret--and Curtis Morrisette, whom we all adored. RIP friends.

Continued broken legs to Henley & co., I'm looking fwd to seeing this. Hope to be there this week.


Dave T said...

Thanks to you all for your comments, particularly James and the very thoughtful BC. As soon as I can get a half-hour or so of free time, I promise a response.

Anonymous said...

Many of us involved with Henley St.'s RICHARD III wait anxiously for Frank's toupee to fall off in silouhette during the sequence depicting the dual deaths of Gray and Rivers - and consider that moment to be one of the "surprise hits" and/or "unexpected gems" of the entire production. :)

Dave T said...

Thanks for your comments, all, but particularly James and BC. I appreciate you both taking the time to engage in dialogue about this production and theater in general.

James, I hope you don’t perceive my criticisms as discrediting everything, or even anything, about your production (or as inciting you to moose-milk dipping!). I put out my opinions and try to back up those opinions with explanations. I respect every- and any-body’s right to disagree. As I hope I made clear in this space and in print, I think there are plenty of reasons to see Richard III at Henley Street and I hope many, many people go check it out (though there is a police station not far from Pine Camp so I would NOT speed to get there).

I think I understand your decision about the violence scrims and, as I said, I was ambivalent about them, not categorically down on them. I agree with BC in that it was more powerful to see those scenes in shadow than to have them totally off-stage. However, I think the introduction of video shuffles the deck a bit and diminishes the relevance of ancient conventions. Maybe I’m just dense but I don’t quite get the visual metaphor. If these scenes are supposed to be like television, why not put them on television like the other video segments? Or, if it is more commentary on filtered representations of horrible events, why not film them on DV and have them displayed on a computer screen like Saddam Hussein’s grainy execution video?

BC, I also thought Melissa was amazing in The Goat and I thought Melissa’s final confrontation with Richard was riveting. To me, what made that scene so strong was her visible emotion attenuated by a resolve to fight back against Richard’s latest offense. In earlier scenes, I had mostly seen the raw emotion, which may have been a fine choice but it wasn’t one that I especially liked. Shakespeare almost by definition involves extreme emotion but balancing that emotion with the demands of the language can be tricky.

And that is where I thought Ms. Muhleman succeeded in her early confrontation with Richard. Her character was obviously distraught but the demands of the interplay with Richard were challenging, requiring a mix of revulsion, despair, confusion, maybe even resignation? It’s a lot to pack into a relatively short scene and I think she did a great job with it. Could another actress have done as well or better? Maybe, but in this production, I thought she fit just right. Perhaps we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.

On your third point, I would be the first to concede that directors in general don’t get a fair shake (I said as much in a Barksdale panel discussion earlier this year). In my experience, a good director is visible both everywhere and nowhere in a production, making analysis of his/her success hard to specify. “Staging” and “choices” are among the few things that can be written about cohesively (along with casting, pacing, and a few others). I know directors are ultimately responsible for everything from casting to the curtain call. Certainly James deserves the lion’s share of the credit for Richard; even a significant slice of the praise that’s gone to Scottie should be shared with James. But just as directors should be praised for what goes right, responsibility for what doesn’t work should also be assigned to them.

You say, ”With this production, I think they have surpassed any expectation that might have been in anyone's mind.” I think this is an extremely broad statement. I can say with some level of confidence that this production was among the most written-about productions in recent history, with articles in the T-D, Style,, Urge magazine, and others. I think (and hope) people will come to the production that had never heard of Henley Street before, perhaps having experienced only Barksdale or DC-area productions, and therefore expecting a great deal. I think many of them will be satisfied – certainly with the level of some of the performances. But I also know, based on at least one person I talked to who had never seen a Henley Street production before this one, that this will not be unanimous. This is not meant to diminish the accomplishment of Henley Street and the Richard cast and crew. I think you are right, BC, that this fledgling company has taken great strides and the level of this production certainly gives me hope for continued growth in the future.

”All things considered, this may prove to be the most impressive show of the Richmond Theatre season.” I think you may get some argument about this based on the other productions that are currently showing in Richmond. This has already proven to be a pretty amazing Fall season with Richard certainly one of the outstanding contenders. But we’re also only about 6-7 weeks into the season. Things could get even better!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for defending your assessment of Ms. Muhleman's performance with substantive observations. It is unfortunate when an individual performer is called out with nothing more than the word "weak."

Speculating on unnamed persons who could have done better was a particularly gratuitious comment.

At least the poster acknowledged going to a place that was "not nice." If you're going to trash someone, do it on the basis of something more than one weak adjective.

Thespis' Little Helper said...

Dave, thanks much for expounding and for calling me out about the "expectations" statement in particular.

In response the seemingly very angry Mr. Bainbridge: I didn't trash anyone personally, but it's perfectly fair to call out someone's work. (It seems to merit constant repeating here that these are opinions.) Frankly, I felt that leaving it at that comment and not going further was rather kind.

Regarding "Speculating on unnamed persons who could have done better was a particularly gratuitious[sic] comment." It took some thought to figure out what you were referring to, but I think you have misinterpreted the sentence to which you are referring, so I'll let that lie.

Regarding "Speculating on unnamed persons who could have done better was a particularly gratuitious[sic] comment." I think you have misinterpreted the sentence to which you are referring, so I'll let that lie.

Anonymous said...

I finally saw Richard last night and it was a superb production. I was prepared for the video to be distracting, but I thought it juxtaposed the Shakespearean with the contemporary effectively.

How "BC" could have a beef with Rebecca Muhleman is beyond me. Both she and Melissa Johnston-Price were electrifying in their confrontations with Scott, given the differing ages and maturity of their characters, not to mention the long interval in-between.

I think unmentioned fine performances were turned in multiple roles by Muhleman, Dean Knight, and Stephen Ryan (especially as the Bishop). Adam Mincks was greasily treacherous as Buckingham. Margarette Joyner has a powerful presence. Frank Creasy was, well, the unfailingly strong Frank Creasy, rug and all.

The backstage work has been uneven in some previous Henley productions, but the stage managers/crew and costume folks for Richard were near perfect.

Perhaps I can be accused of being in the tank for Henley, but somebody's got to be.

Scott Wichmann said...

I just posted a new blog with some RIII- Related links and video of my appearance on 'Virginia this Morning.' I love this cast & crew, and the vision of the show- in my mind- Is absolutely first-rate, and the storytelling is splendidly executed. I'm excited to come to work every day and play with such gifted, talented team players.

Good to see that the show is generating buzz and critical discussion; Come on out and see it for yourself!!

Anonymous said...

Also saw R3 last weekend.
Thought it was a terrific piece of theatre.
Nice to see someone else doing Shakespeare. Fresh and exciting! Well done, Henley!

Anonymous said...

A reminder to Dave -
Wichmann played Felix in The Odd Couple last summer. A more "regular" role than the larger-than-life ones you noted.

Dave T said...

Felix is certainly more regular than someone like Richard Gloucester, but both Felix and Oscar are pretty quirky. The kind of regular guy I was thinking of was a role like George Bailey who he'll play very soon. So my wish has been granted!