From Machiavelli to Samsara: Trinity Shakespeare Festival 2017

RICHARD III

Blake Hackler as Richard in Richard III. Amy Peterson photo

The term Machiavellian gets applied to Richard III often, referencing the incarnation of the king William Shakespeare created for a British court focused on dynastic justification. It frequently inspires two kinds of portrayals of the titular character on stage. They are 1) a supremely vile psychopath who rages at the drop of a pin, or 2) a remote, scheming caricature walled off by reflective, casual address, almost offering an ongoing apology for his “unseemly” offstage deeds. This effectively softens him as prime antagonist of the work by protecting the audience from visceral engagement with a Plexiglas-like barrier of text. In his vision of Richard in Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s production of Richard III, Director Stephen Brown-Fried creates a chilling, intimate reality that avoids both pitfalls. Presenting the work “in the round” at the black box Hays Theatre on the Texas Christian University campus, Brown-Fried has his Richard embody a fatalistic arc of descent as his murderous machinations destroy any semblance of sanity or order at Court. Slight in form, doe-eyed and charming, self-deprecating at first with wry humor, Blake Hackler’s Richard establishes a swift camaraderie with the audience from his first up close and personal address. As his cruel paranoia expands with each successive savage ploy insinuating him closer to the throne, he grows repugnant to the audience. He holds them captive, as he does members of court. His occasional explosive outbursts of rage signify a huge well of malevolence lurking under his seemingly guileless, courteous demeanor. Hackler’s mastery of physical expression, from the compliant to the vicious, manifests in how he plays Richard’s deformities. He bears them with habituated annoyance, a blend of energized disregard and calculated affect. His Richard uses them to exploit sympathetic “reset” among his retinue at key points when his acts reveal vile depths of depravity, easily perceived by the theatre audience but not the members of court. Contained, efficient, Hackler’s Richard never ceases to dominate the stage, even when not present in a scene, a haunting and haunted portrayal. As the play unfolds on the Hays stage, a claustrophobic, sinister sense akin to drowning in quicksand overwhelms with Hackler’s Richard a suffocating, destructive driving force. Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s bold, evocative production embraces the play’s text with genuine respect while revealing the warped motivations of the megalomaniacal, hallucinatory Richard with a very modern sensibility. Horrifying in deed, the performance gratifies as living art. Resolution? It takes the pure, unadulterated masculine grace and nobility of Richmond, clearly drawn by Garret Storms (embodying the “New Order”) to stop Hackler’s monster in his tracks. Sanity restored.

 

As masterful as Hackler’s portrayal of Richard is, Trinity’s Richard III succeeds as a balanced, ensemble work. Performances by the cast women inform the highest dramatic moments in the production, a reminder that Shakespeare did write exceptional female roles. Kelsey Milbourn as Anne, Lynn Blackburn in her Trinity debut as Elizabeth, Sarah Rutan as Margaret and Krista Scott as Duchess of York unleash individual expressions of feminine outrage while functioning as a chorus of Cassandras, unable to sway the court in time to prevent Richard’s obscene acts, even seduced by him in spite of them. The toughest part of this play to absorb is the array of hard to distinguish nobles and male attendants that populate its scenes. The program provides a schematic delineating the Houses of York and Lancaster and the Tudor contingent, along with three major unrelated politicians and one soldier. Trinity Shakespeare regulars J. Brent Alford, Richard Haratine, David Coffee and Michael Muller show their characteristic individual veracity and fluency in creating a strong court ensemble. 2017 newcomers John Pszyk, Branden Loera, Richard Leaming and Selmore Haines demonstrate they have the chops and dedication to fit into the tight ensemble and help realize Director Brown-Fried’s vision with creativity and balance. Returning from 2015, when he played Edmund in King Lear (this critic’s best male acting performance of that year), Montgomery Sutton finds unexpected nuanced depth in the somewhat flat character of Richard’s hapless brother Clarence, who reappears in ghostly guise after being savagely murdered. Director Brown-Fried focuses on revealing very human contrasts in the manifestation of good and evil, in both real and fantastical terms. Sutton’s performance as Clarence embodies this vision superbly. This Richard III is a resonant and elegant production, where director’s vision and the design team and actors’ realizations enliven this early play in Shakespeare’s canon with superb and terrifying grace.

The production comes alive most believably in the pre-World War I era (costumes by Aaron Patrick DeClerk), with somber tones and ominous shadows (Tristan Decker) permeating the space under an exquisite Art Deco stained glass ceiling design (Brian Clinnin) that alludes in its intricacy to a spider’s web and ornate, inlaid parquet-style flooring reinforcing the theme of chaos by intent. Adding in sound design by Kate Marvin and fight choreography by Jeffrey Colangelo, Trinity Shakespeare’s Richard III ranks high among the recurrent successes of the Festival’s 9-year history.

 

MEASURE FOR MEASURE

Kelsey Milbourn and Montgomery Sutton in Measure for Measure. Amy Peterson photo

T.J. Walsh directs Shakespeare with a defining, comprehensive understanding of the works and unwavering affection for them. He solves the challenges inherent in the so-called “Problem Plays” as if they are child’s games. Last year’s production of The Winter’s Tale, an odd mix of performance styles with a convoluted plot, hateful characters, a man eaten by a bear, a pastorale and the surreal transformation of a statue to life became a poignant love poem of redemption and reconciliation under Walsh’s tender, clearly delineated guidance. So it goes with this year’s production of the problematic Measure For Measure, bawdy comedy interwoven with examination of lust and power that rivals the savagery of David Mamet. With the same sterling cast from Richard III, Walsh balances the incongruities into a thought provoking, entertaining unity that reaffirms love, commitment, wise governance and the fun of tomfoolery. Life flows in endless samsara cycles. Richard Haratine excels at playing characters on odysseys or in search of personal illumination. His soulful Duke, wandering the countryside disguised as a simple friar in order to observe his established rule of law enforced by a zealot, functions intriguingly as the play’s deus ex machina and unexpected hero. Montgomery Sutton suffers silent torture of the damned as the “principled” zealot tripped up by his own humanity and abuse of power. His character Angelo is one of Shakespeare’s most despicable villains. Under Walsh’s direction Sutton’s Angelo undergoes a vivid trial of self-loathing for his grievous misdeeds, suffering the consequences with humility and dignified resignation. Angelic and composed, Kelsey Milbourn’s Isabella glides ultimately into true love with her bandied about virginity intact. “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Propriety carries the day, which could become saccharine and boring if it weren’t for the marvelous clowns.

Kelsey Milbourn and Richard Haratine in Measure For Measure. Amy Peterson photo. Will Turbyne set design

As foils to all the sad souls searching for Buddha-like transformation, Garret Storms as a scalawag dandy, David Coffee as a pimp named Bum, Sarah Rutan as the brothel madam, Richard Leaming as dissolute jailbird Barnardine and the enchantingly versatile Blake Hackler as witless constable “Elbow” conspire with madcap bawdiness and delicious comic timing to bring the audience’s attention back to solvable, silly earthly matters. Their endeavors reveal how humor can indeed function as best medicine for the soul…. The overwhelming cruelty of the character Angelo tends to dominate most productions of Measure For Measure. His issues and sins are egregious, but ultimately justice prevails. This Measure For Measure is a lively and loving, in balance production under Walsh’s guidance, pleasing to view with the resplendent Renaissance costumes procured by Lloyd Cracknell and under Michael Skinner’s soft, warm lighting. Almost the star of the production without uttering a word is scenic designer Will Turbyne (Resident Technical Director and Scenic and Lighting Designer at University of Dallas). He graces the production with a magnificent, oversized, slightly off kilter ornate church window through which projections of blue sky or lush gardens can be glimpsed, pulling the audience through the proscenium into the sometimes sanctimonious, sometimes scandalous, sometimes blessedly pure, environment and underscoring the mood of the play with vibrant physical dramatic effect.

Thank you, Trinity Shakespeare Festival, Directors T.J.Walsh, Stephen Brown-Fried and Managing Director Harry Parker for another brilliant pairing. I can’t wait until we celebrate your first decade in 2018.

Tickets are now on sale for the ninth season of Trinity Shakespeare Festival, which will present Richard III and Measure for Measure in repertory June 13-July 2. Performances of Richard III take place in the Marlene and Spencer Hays Theatre and performances of Measure for Measure in the Jerita Foley Buschman Theatre, both in Ed Landreth Hall, 2800 S. University Dr. on the Texas Christian University campus. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. each evening, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $15 for students, $25 for adults and $20 for seniors (60 and older), and may be purchased at http://www.trinityshakes.org or (817) 257-8080.

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