Go to Richard III for Shakespearean insults like “defused infection of a man”.

Bwogger and Shakespeare fanatic Levi Cohen made his way to the Lenfest Center for the Arts to watch the opening of the last of the theses of the Directing MFA Class of 2018: Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by Nana Dakin and produced by Paloma Estévez. The play runs through March 31st, with two shows on its last day. Tickets can be found on the School of the Arts’ website, and using the discount code STUDENT gets you one for free! Otherwise, it’s $15.

Directing MFA student Nana Dakin’s thesis production of Richard III opens not with the famous monologue by its titular character– which begins with those resounding lines, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York”– but with a Star Wars-esque opening crawl that gives us a brief summary of the Wars of the Roses thus far. In front of the expository graphic, nameless soldiers engage in a fierce battle, until many are left dead on the ground. It’s a chilling image of what’s to come, a first look at the spectre of death that haunts every scene of Shakespeare’s history of the last King of York.

This Richard III is an unmitigated success, a monumental piece of theatre that accomplishes, as Dakin states in her director’s note, an examination of “how our attachments to historic structures of gender and power might be preventing us from change.” All fifteen actors in the cast identify either as women or are gender-nonconforming; it’s a thrill to see this play, so focused on the political machinations and cruel schemes of men, delivered into the hands of actors whose roles in Shakespeare (especially in history plays) tend to be limited. Every scene drove home for me how vital it was that this production offered the full breadth of Shakespearean roles to actors of all genders and all ethnicities.

Dakin’s direction brings the world of London to vivid, dramatic life. The amount of negative space onstage generates extreme tension between the bodies of the characters, as they bow and kneel to one another. From the sides come mourners drifting behind coffins; armies marching behind generals; exiled queens stalking their doomed foes.

We’ve all had those days where we murder everyone around us, right?

The performances are uniformly excellent. Anya Banerjee’s venomous, tragic Lady Anne lights up the stage when verbally sparring with Richard. Kea Trevett’s turn as Queen Elizabeth hits emotional notes both comedic and deeply tragic. Alice Renier haunts the stage as the embittered, prophesying exile Queen Margaret. Adaku Okpi gives a stately performance as the Duchess of York, imbuing the role with immense gravitas. Zainab Musa’s Buckingham is constantly calculating, a victim of his scheming for ambition with Richard.

Katie Mack’s performance as Richard III must be given special praise. She appears in nearly every scene, and is magnetic in all of them: ranting and raving, laughing, threatening, weeping, screaming out for “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Her Richard is one of immense detail: constantly responding to the people around him; a genius at the sport of Kings; filled with childish glee whenever a scheme is executed well. I would wager that the success of any Richard III hinges on its titular performance, and Mack ably and tirelessly leads the show.

Each member of the 15-person cast, really, ought to be singled out for creating a truly immersive experience. Many actors pull double- or triple-duty, appearing in multiple roles across the massive play. Whenever these multiple roles cross the various factions of the complex political web of 15th-century England, costume designer Emily White distinguishes them with colorful badges displaying their allegiances.

A view of the stage (including the hyper-versatile black bands)

Santiago Orjuela-Laverde’s scenic design is minimalist but powerful, especially in the use of four black, elastic bands which cross the white space of the stage. Richard weaves these over and around his victims throughout the play, a physical rendering of his machinations, his apparent power over the strands of fate. Late in the play, these bands are transformed into the two opposing tents of warring generals on the move, a simple and elegant construction of space that says a lot using very little.

Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design is eerie and effective, with blaring klaxons, drumbeats, and dripping water filling out the atmosphere of the mostly-empty stage. (A repeated sound cue follows Alice Renier’s Queen Margaret, to great effect, as her curse is fulfilled.) Elizabeth Mak’s lighting constructs a variety of spaces out of the flat planes of the set, and amps up the drama of the play with its overall starkness.

There is little more to say about this production other than: go see it! Dakin’s production is an engrossing interpretation of a difficult play that completely submerges the audience in the “subtle, false, and treacherous” intricacies of Richard’s plot. It is a murderously beautiful piece of living history.

Richard III runs for about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets can be found here.

Art by Anchuli Felicia King via Richard III Facebook Page.
Photo by Levi Cohen; Richard III portrait via Wikimedia Commons.