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Most people brought up in ‘Western’ culture have experienced a Shakespearean story in some form, whether in a school reading, a classic stage performance or movie adaptations like O and 10 Things I Hate About You. Shakespeare re-hashes are a dime a dozen. In order to rise above the rest, one undertakes the hefty task of conveying the Bard’s stories’ wit and philosophies—but doing so seamlessly in an original setting. I was thusly intrigued when a recent production of Richard III by Wayward Productions and Chicago Fusion Theatre claimed to be a “high-octane theatrical experience for both outlaws and Shakespeare purists.” I am neither outlaw nor purist, but found this reimagining as thoughtfully adapted as it was well-acted and devilishly entertaining.
Richard III is based on the real-life member of the English royal family whose bitter hunger for the crown held by brother, Edward IV, led him to wreak havoc on everyone around him. In this recent version of the play, the “royal family” is a gang called The Warlocks and Richard’s brother Edward is the leader of the greasy pack. Whereas the original is set in late-16th century London, this version takes place in 1970s Pittsburgh—but both are appropriate settings for a deadly quest for power to unravel.
The royal, leather-clad motorcycle club’s “castle” is a bar aptly named London’s, which the audience enters as a horde of wasted bikers dances and yells around, taking shots, fighting and offers them plates of cocaine. (Don’t get too excited; it was fake…probably). Suddenly that beer you were thinking twice about bringing into the theatre seems tame. After several minutes of enjoyable trashiness in this dirty, run-down watering hole (i.e. the theatre space), the lights and music go down and Gloucester appears in the center of the bar’s center dance floor and delivers the famous opening monologue: Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious by this sun of York—while a classic rock song plays just slightly too loud on jukebox.
Though language and setting seem to clash at first, as the play goes on, Shakespeare’s lyrical dialect eventually becomes one with the biker-talk and grimy bar/castle. Even for those mostly unfamiliar with Richard III, the calamitous events come across well because the actors deliver the Bard’s poetic language with such power and conviction and seem so at home on the stage. Because let’s face it: Shakespeare’s words aren’t the easiest to understand, and one of the challenges and blessings of performing a play is that the script will only take you so far. The actors do a great job of carrying the story the rest of the way. They use their bodies and surrounding space to emphasize their words and feelings in order to make the story clear and connect the audience to all the physical and emotional episodes they endure. The details also make the story come alive, like the jukebox that rarely stops playing or the barkeep who wipes down the bar and serves ‘off-screen’ characters drinks while the scripted part of the play is performed front and center.
After a while, it seems totally appropriate—or at least intentionally amusing and interesting—for a faded-as-hell lady in a leather jacket and fishnets to scream through a smeared-lipstick mouth, “Hie thee to hell for shame, and leave the world! Thou cacodemon! There thy kingdom is,” or for some action-packed dialog to be interjected with a perfectly timed “Oh, fuck!” The performances that were particularly exceptional were those of Brittany Ellis as Queen Margaret, Hilary Williams as Lady Anne and Jude Roche as Buckingham, though the entire well-cast group of actors let their 20th century characters shine through the 16th century words, and Carlo Lorenzo Garcia did a particularly noble job directing the play and acting as the lead character. Most of the clashing and mixing of eras is done with self-awareness and wit aimed at performing something dated in a contemporary setting, drawing parallels where fit.
Because as much as we like to think otherwise, people don’t change much. The real and fictional Richard III’s absurd fight power via corruption and violence isn’t so far removed from any such quest today. Though some aspects of Shakespeare are antiquated, people continue to extract themes and plots of his plays and reveal their relevance to our own era and value as entertainment. This production of Richard III is a testament to that and should not be missed!
After Friday shows there is also a concert series “Live at London’s”, free with ticket.