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Richard III
The Vortex Theatre

Richard III
Chad Brummett
People debate whether Richard III is one of Shakespeare's tragedies or one of his histories (as if everything had to fit into one and only one category). I don't think the play is a tragedy by any standard definition of tragedy. And Shakespeare plays so fast and loose with the facts that even if you were to call it "historical fiction," the emphasis would definitely be on the "fiction."

You could call it a horror story, in the sense that "The Joseph Stalin Story" would be a horror story. But, unlike Joe, Richard has a wicked sense of humor and is so damned entertaining in his malevolence and duplicitousness that I think it's more appropriate to call Richard III the blackest of black comedies, maybe the first in that genre. I found myself smiling and laughing more than I have at some of the canonical "comedies."

The play tells the tale of a man who served only two years as King of England (1483 to 1485), but thanks to Shakespeare, he is one of the most famous—I should say "infamous"—kings in history. He is widely believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews—the children of his older brother who was king, and therefore heirs to the throne. But in Shakespeare, Richard doesn't stop there. He kills (or orders to be killed) everybody who stands or might stand in his way to the throne. Part of the terrifying "fun" of the play, for me, was: Who's going to get it next?

To be sure, there is a lot of other stuff in this play besides murder. It could be a primer on how to do political propaganda. Also a primer on how to seduce a woman who hates you. A battle scene. Ghosts. And moments of great sorrow, of mothers bemoaning the deaths of their children, which is about the saddest thing there is in this world.

In fact, Richard III is Shakespeare's second longest play (just behind Hamlet). Peter Shea Kierst, the director of this production, has done a marvellous job of cutting the play down to fit modern attention spans. It runs about two and a half hours, including intermission. The good parts have been kept, and the play zips along, and I wouldn't have wanted it any shorter or longer.

The setting has been moved to some time near the present in a civil war-ravaged country. Think Bosnia, although a lot of other nations could qualify. The clue is in the costumes (by Peggy Wells) and in some video projections. There are white roses and red roses (since the original takes place during the War of the Roses). The Bosnian alphabet letters for L and Y are written under the roses: Lancaster and York.

Peter takes some liberties with the text, and I think they work well. The two young princes, who in the original are old enough to have speaking parts, have been replaced by a single infant. Queen Margaret, whose husband and son were killed by Richard (in battle, I think), appears here as a ghost throughout the play—which makes perfect historical sense, since she died the year before Richard became king. And the characters who have been killed by Richard reappear as ghosts at various points in the story, their number increasing every few minutes, with each new death. In the original, the ghosts appear only in one scene toward the end. I think Peter's decision to have them tormenting Richard more and more as he plunges deeper and deeper into blood is very effective.

The cast assembled at the Vortex is top-notch, top to bottom. And at the top, emphatically, is Chad Brummett as Richard. He's simply magnetic, and you can see how his Richard manages to get his way for so long. He's the man you love to hate. Richard is often portrayed as grotesquely deformed, but here he looks like a normal person except for paralyzed legs and a not very obtrusive hump on his back. Bounding around the stage on crutches, he is pure energy and the tantalizing personification of Nietzsche's will to power—which is what makes Nietzsche so scary. (If I'm conflating the actor with the character here—well, isn't that what good acting is all about?)

It's hard to hold your own against Chad, but the seventeen other members of the cast manage to do just that. It's a tribute to Shakespeare and Peter Kierst that many of our best local actors are willing to take fairly small parts. I think everyone is good, but some of the roles are showier than others, and the standouts for me are Kate Costello, Lorri Oliver, Micah Linford, Peter Diseth (perfectly smarmy as the Joseph Goebbels of the piece), and Augusta Allen-Jones (as the spectral Queen Margaret).

As with most of the Shakespeare histories, some foreknowledge of the time period and the characters is expected by the author. But even if you know nothing about fifteenth century England, I think you will have a most exhilarating experience at this Richard III.

Shakespeare's Richard III is playing at the Vortex Theatre, on Buena Vista just south of Central in Albuquerque, through 24, 2012. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. More information at vortexabq.org.


Photo: Alan Mitchell

--Dean Yannias



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