THEATER REVIEW Capturing the English crown, and our attention

Shakespeare Ensemble’s Richard III entertains with repeated backstabbing

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Mad Margaret (Elise C. Kuo ’11), widow of Henry VI, curses her enemies.
Elijah Mena—The Tech
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Richard (Christopher D. Smith ’12) asks Lady Anne (Grace M. Kane ’11) to kill him if she will not marry him. MIT Shakespeare Ensemble’s final performances of Richard III are on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.
Elijah Mena—The Tech

MIT Shakespeare Ensemble presents Richard III

Le Sala de Puerto Rico

Friday and Saturday 8 p.m.

The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble is putting on Richard III by — you guessed it — William Shakespeare. Richard III is classified among Shakespeare’s history plays, which many of you might remember as the ones that are not taught in the average high school curriculum. Regardless, it is still performed with regularity, and its success is often contingent on the strength of the actor portraying the eponymous lead. In this particular production, the increasingly ubiquitous Ensemble member Christopher D. Smith ’12 delivered impressively.

Richard III is, to put it bluntly, a bit of a bastard. A magnificently manipulative one, but a bastard all the same. He admits and embraces his role wholeheartedly, right from the opening monologue. When a character puts the moves on a woman and successfully courts her, that’s reasonably impressive. When he does it less than a foot away from the still-stiffening corpse of the woman’s husband that he personally ventilated with his own dagger (and she knows it), I’d say that’s worth a jaw-drop or two. Smith is convincing in the role, transitioning smoothly from a finger-twiddling, white-cat-petting villain one moment to an affable lover the next. His breakdown in the last scenes of the play is equally effective. Honorable mention has to go to the visual effects sequence in Act II that made good use of the stage space and added a stylized touch to what might otherwise have been a forgettable series of actor appearances and re-appearances. Some might accuse the Ensemble of being overly flashy or artsy, but I think that in a production like this one, which timeshifts the War of the Roses to modern times (or at least an alternate universe with guns and power suits), it works just fine.

The plot of Richard III is a little on the convoluted side, which is natural for a play about political intrigue, but the story stems from a simple enough premise: Richard desires to be king of England, but is not. There are a number of people who are summarily disposed of as part of the problem, regardless of age, character, or personal relation to Richard himself. Richard racks up a fairly substantial body count before and during the play, but he crosses the moral point of no return when he orders the deaths of his two small nephews, even though they pose only a theoretical threat to his regime. The deed was so heinous that I was screaming, “No! Not the younglings!” in my head. No points for guessing what happens to Richard at the end of the play (this is Shakespeare, after all).

The Ensemble’s production uses the same actors in two or more parts, which makes it difficult to understand the already complex relationships between the various characters, but the play has so many peripheral characters that it really can’t be helped. The multiple performances don’t spoil the show; in fact, they help display the actors’ ranges. It’s even played for a subtle laugh at one point, when one of the characters played by Virginia K. Quaney ’10 reports on her other character’s recent imprisonment — like Clark Kent doing a news write-up on Superman’s death (which I’m sure has happened at some point or another). The cast and crew try their best to aid the audience. The characters are color-coded for the audience’s convenience, and the program has an extensive family tree, complete with photographs. These cues are a huge help.

As effectively as Richard is portrayed, the play also benefits from a strong supporting cast, including many Shakespeare Ensemble veterans like Quaney, Kellas R Cameron ’10, and Deirdre J. LaBounty ’10, all of whom play multiple roles. For some, this is their last show with the Ensemble. Elise Kuo ’11 royally dominates what few scenes she has as Queen Margaret. Though, don’t read too much into the word “Queen” in front of her name, as so many people sit on/ascend to the English throne in this play that you’d think lines of succession were determined by announcing your birthday at Burger King.

All told, this is a well-made production that I’d recommend based on the quality of the performers as well as the parade of memorable moments, such as seeing two murdering thugs (literally, pants-on-the-ground, baseball cap-wearing thugs) speaking Shakespearean or watching a Richard brazen enough to rationalize and convince sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth to help him marry her daughter, despite of having murdered both of her sons. This is a show that runs on audacity, and if you don’t mind occasionally being confused over who’s mad at whom and why, then I’d go see it on that basis alone. The last two performances are in the Student Center’s La Sala de Puerto Rico, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.