Attempting to stage any work of Shakespeare in a black box is a challenge. Taking on Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s earliest history plays, seems almost an impossibility in a small, intimate space. The complicated plot, the even more complicated genealogy, the epic battle scene, the darkness of the subject matter, and the grandeur of the language all seem much better suited to a sweeping auditorium, or at the very least an 800-seat theatre like Shakespeare’s Globe. The Rogue Theatre tackled this monstrous text, however, and managed to capture the ferocity of Shakespeare’s most evil villain seamlessly using a few key stylistic choices.
First and perhaps most practically, The Rogue chose to publish a pictorial family tree inside the program. Hallelujah! As mentioned, the plot in Richard III is extremely complex. Richard, form the start of the play, goes on a killing spree, murdering so-and-so’s uncle, and so-and-so’s brother. Many of the actors in The Rogue’s company portrayed multiple characters, a necessary evil to the multitudinous and early murders that Richard commits. This became very confusing after watching more than one actor die, and then return as so-and-so’s cousin’s brother’s servant. This is what made the family tree a Godsend. While brooding photos of the many characters connected by marriage lines might seem cheesy to some, the tree was an excellent tool that helped me to catch up a bit during intermission. “Right,” I thought to myself. I knew that actor had died in scene 2… now he’s playing so-and-so’s father-in-law.
Secondly, director Cynthia Meier chose to visually depict all of Richard’s murders, even though most of them are not written as full-fledged scenes in the published play. Rather than making up some overly-dramatized action scene, however, Meier chose a simple, effective, and even darkly humorous strategy to denote each of the deaths. Between scenes, Richard would walk out onstage and place a cabbage on the seat that served as his throne. Then, with an excruciatingly satisfying sound, he would gleefully chop the cabbage in half with a machete. Perfect. Rather than leaving the audience guessing, this cabbage-chopping told us plainly that the target discussed in the previous scene had, in fact, been killed. It is an act that combines primal violence with humor, reflecting Richard’s delighted wickedness. Even better, the actors left the brainy-looking cabbages strewn all around the throne, a striking reminder of the innumerable deaths committed by Richard’s hand.
Thirdly, The Rogue chose a profoundly effective way of underscoring the dark and visceral tone of the play. The set included a lofted platform that housed three taiko drummers, whose rousing music opened the play, served as transition music between scenes, and as accompaniment during dramatic moments. The drums vibrated throughout the space, awakening within the audience the same primal feelings that drive Richard to commit his monstrous and multiple acts of violence. During scenes with Margaret or the ghosts, the drums underscored curses, warnings, and damnations to Richard’s character. The drums were so deeply intrinsic to the telling of the story that the audience discussion that followed the performance focused almost exclusively on the role of the drums. The actors talked about how much the play changed when they rehearsed with the musicians, how much more deeply they were attuned to their characters’ motives. The drums made the play.
In my experience, the caliber of the acting, direction, and design at The Rogue are always stellar. That is why I am not surprised that they were able to carry the weight of Richard III in such a small, intimate space with the help of some key stylistic strategies. I will be back for more next weekend, and can’t wait to enjoy such a fantastic production once more. The Rogue has proven to me that Shakespeare in a black box is not only possible, but can be fantastic in the right hands. This is a play not to be missed, as the only real failure of the production is the missed opportunity to serve really fresh coleslaw at intermission.
Odaiko Sonora: Tucson’s Taiko Company (video below)