Bill Shakespeare’s play, Richard III, has always been a play about duality. Done right, it is a fun play, juxtaposing equal doses of black humor with rich, high octane melodrama. It’s also a tough, balancing act and, perhaps for this reason, its usually not anybody’s idea of first choice when tackling the Bard, but I suspect Indiana director and actor Tristan Ross revels in the challenge.
Ross has brought his post-modern, bare-boned, minimalist adaptation to the local IndyFringe Theater at 719 East St. Clair in Indianapolis, where it plays Thursday-Sunday until January 24. This Richard III is the first of Ross’ planned series of cutting edge, contemporary Shakespeare plays with his “No Holds Bard Productions.” If Richard goes well, Ross hopes to tackle Julius Caesar.
Ross’ adaptation is a concept-heavy Richard III, employing eight actors for fifteen roles. Taking dualist themes to a refreshing extreme, Ross has issued his artist statement from his No Holds Bard website, “The characters all represent duality and I’ve done my best to make it as much of an ensemble piece as possible; that is, reducing Richard and strengthening the rest. The duality is a reflection on Richard’s dual nature. Every character is cast with a double. For instance, one actor will play Elizabeth and Hastings. Elizabeth is compassionate, sympathetic, and aware of Richard’s treason. Hastings is competitive, vindictive, and believes Richard is her ally.”
Does Ross’ concept work? For the most part, yes. He has clearly thought the play through and invested Richard III with originality. This is no paint-by-number interpretation, nor does it veer so far as to reduce it to caricature; another tough balancing act.
“Abridged Shakespeare unplugged” is how this adaptation might be described. With a handful of props and costumes, this is the type of concept art that relies heavily on the acting and, in that, this is only partly successful. There are a couple of stand-out performances in dual roles, which, because of the concept, is the primary gauge.
David Pittmann thoroughly compels as Edward and as Catesby, investing both roles with a contrasting but striking operatic quality, which is always a good thing in Shakespeare. Pittmann’s Edward is a sick, fragile animal on par with Wagner’s Amfortas in “Parsifal.” Pittmann evoked real empathy and commanded the scene.
As Catesby, Pittmann, donning sunglasses and a mafioso suit, is stylishly slimy. From the editing in the adaptation, and from the acting, it’s clear both Ross and Pittmann relished the part. Here, Pittmann naturally and wholly seems a different actor altogether, without being obvious. His Catesby menacingly shifts about the stage, evoking a real dangerous presence. Again, the performance could almost be described as operatic. Pittmann’s conniving recalls something akin to Loge from the “Ring”; one is never sure what he is going to do next.
The second stand-out performance in dual roles is Amy Pettinella as both Queen Margaret and the Mayor. Pettinella also brings an operatic quality to her parts. As Margaret,she unleashes the voice of fury, reason and demanded justice. Pettinella, a seasoned local actor, is so self-assured that she embodies her Queen with a true, spooky, Erda-like foreboding that elicits shivers.
Petinella’s Mayor comes from starkly different territory and the actress gives just as rich a characterization here. This mayor comes from every small town ladies auxiliary club. She is so suck up, so cloying, so phony politico, I literally hoped, albeit briefly, that Ross might have tinkered with the plot so I might enjoy seeing her die. Pittmann and Pettinella steal every scene they are in. They are that good.
Josh Ramsey and Carrie Schlatter give exceptional single performances, investing so much into their primary roles that their secondary roles pale comparatively.
If Pittmann was slimy as Catesby, then Ramsey, as Buckingham, is so slimy that he leaves a trail. Decked in a chintzy white suit, Ramsey is a cross between a snake oil salesman and a Baptist preacher, eliciting most of the laughs in the play. Ramsey acts with his face, expressiveness and gestures. He is so naturally convincing, so refreshingly original, its hard to believe this is the same actor who gave a lackluster, trendy, poorly accented performance as Dracula last year. Ramsey has either matured considerably as an actor, or simply has more seasoned direction. Probably both.
Ramsey gives his all in the role, so much so, that his Clarence is wanting. Ramsey’s secondary role lacks the necessary whiny quality of the character and is a bit of a run through. True, the role of Clarence is diminished in this adaptation, but the death scene, and the moments leading up to it, failed to elicit viewer involvement in the character.
The same could pretty much be said for Carrie Schlatter as Queen Elizabeth and Hastings. Schlatter, too, acts with finely judged expressiveness in the role of Elizabeth. She captures the nuances of the character and pulls the viewer into her turmoil, her frustrations, and her angst with all the expertise of finest acting. I was completely caught up in her performance. I would not call her Hastings a run through, but it’s almost indistinguishable from her Elizabeth.
Randy Cox is old-school reliable and competent in the dual roles of Ratcliff and Stanley, but again the parts are indistinguishable from one another.
As Anne and the Duchess of York, Casey Ross is self conscious and, at times, stiff. She certainly tries in both roles and perhaps with a few more performances under her belt, she can nail it.
Pete Lindblom is the youngest of the cast and it shows. As Rivers and Richmond, Lindblom comes across as having memorized his lines. Lindblom’s performance feels like a reading. Intentionally or not, Lindblom does give the role of Rivers a somewhat charming superficial sheen, especially when he bounces across the stage with uncorked testosterone.
Finally, there is Tristan Ross himself as Richard. What can one say here? His performance as Richard is a resounding success. The true test of a Richard is whether or not the actor can make us like Richard, despite all of his crimes. Ross pulls it off. He is humorous, charming, sweaty, repelling, and, finally, a crushed, defeated, pathetic child who almost got the train set he so went to great lengths to obtain and keep. This was clearly an obsessive labor of love project for Ross and obsession in art is usually a good thing. It is here, at least.
In true Ross style, Richard’s death scene is appropriately grand guignol. Here, this Richard III evokes the spirit of Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price in the 1930’s Universal classic, Tower of London. When the voices of Richard’s victims flow over his corpse, spread out on the gurney, one is reminded of those little creatures under the cellar terrorizing Kim Darby and Jim Hutton in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I was totally creeped out.
Yes, this is Shakespeare deconstructed, unplugged, and revisionist with plenty of gangsters, blood, guns, melodrama, humor, opera worthy performances, a marvelous star turn, great performances, and some mediocre performances. Its high time for Indy to have some gutsy underground theater tackling Shakespeare with originality. Hopefully, Julius Caesar will be next.
Visit the website at no-holds-bard.com. If you live in or around Indy, check it out.