Rarely do I enter a play with as many thoughts and questions as I had going into Richard III at Seattle Shakespeare Company. There was so much to be explored: would a historical play remain accessible not only 400 years after it was written, but 500 years after its events occurred? And what would it be like to see this play – with 21 male characters and 4 female characters – presented by an all-female cast? The answers I found are a testament to the power of Shakespeare’s words to cross boundaries of gender and time, and a testament to what amazing, powerful theatre Seattle Shakespeare Company’s actresses can create when they bring life to all his words – not only those of his few female characters.
One feature which makes all-female productions so exciting, particularly when it comes to all-female productions of Shakespeare, are the opportunities offered for female performing artists, who tend to have fewer opportunities than their male counterparts in the world of Shakespeare. The bard’s plays contain far more roles for men than for women, perhaps because they were originally performed by all-male casts. All-female productions like this open the door for audiences to experience the unique talent and perspectives that female performers can bring to the full array of magnificent roles Shakespeare created. And works of art placing women in positions of power, onstage and behind the scenes, are much-needed today and always. So naturally, I was excited that Seattle Shakespeare Company had chosen to collaborate again with the upstart crow collective to present this sequel to Bring Down the House, their highly-praised all-female adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy.
But as I watched the production, I found myself rarely focusing on the fact that this was an all-female production – instead, I was breathlessly following the story of a fiercely ambitious, villainous, and fascinating individual who will stop at nothing to get what they want. Sarah Hartlett masterfully handles the entrancing, complex, unashamedly evil title role. As her Richard unscrupulously deceives and murders his way through kings, queens, princes and dukes on his way to the throne, the audience cares more about the characters’ passion, ambition, anger, grief, and desire than about the actor’s or character’s gender. This speaks to the universality of Shakespeare’s words in their illumination of the human condition, and more than validates the choice of such non-traditional casting. These feelings and ideas are clearly not reserved for one gender, and they did not die out in the 1470s either – which is why Shakespeare’s insightful history plays continue to be relevant.
The production’s strength was a testament to the power of collaboration. Richard III was a true ensemble production, and the work of every performer, from their movement quality to skill with verse, each in their many roles, was noteworthy. Unforgettable moments and images filling the play were clear co-creations of director Rosa Joshi, choreographer Alice Gosti, lighting designer Geoff Korf, and sound designers Megan Roche and Rob Witmer. Frequently throughout the play, a full stage of light would be replaced by a single flashlight beam on Richard’s face as he confided his true evil schemes with the audience. Richmond, the duke who finally kills Richard, (played by Porscha Shaw) closes the play with a speech seemingly epitomizing him as Richard’s opposite - but when it suddenly ends with the familiar flashlight beam to the face as Richmond threatens “What traitor says not so?”, the audience realizes that there could be aspects of Richard in even this leader. Streamlined, simple costumes (designed by Christine Tschirgi) effectively suggest the medieval without tying the story down to the period - though they do occasionally verge on the Star Wars. The sparse, angled set with wires stretched diagonally from floor to ceiling emphasizes the off-kilter, dark world of the play. The wires are plucked by performers in dramatic moments, and the ominous sounds they create invoke a somber, foreboding mood. The piece, with a complex plot and many, many characters (many of whom go by multiple titles) could at times be hard to follow, but intentional and collaborative direction, lighting design, and performances minimized confusion.
Although Shakespeare wrote many more male characters than female ones, the female characters he did write were often remarkably strong, and the four in this play are no exception. Whether it’s Margaret (Kate Wisniewski) making a room of nobility cower as she lays a curse on them, or Elisabeth (Betsy Schwartz) displaying the matchless strength of a mother’s fierce love as she fights for her children, or in similarly striking moments from The Duchess of York (Mari Nelson) and Lady Anne (Porscha Shaw), the female characters are at the center at some of the most powerful moments in the play.
Rarely have I entered a play as curious and excited and rarely have I left as moved. Richard III at Seattle Shakespeare Company is proof that Shakespeare’s words can powerfully reach across centuries and gender lines in the hands of some of Seattle’s most talented female storytellers.
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