There are two different approaches to discussing the University of Montana’s and director Greg Johnson’s current production of Richard III.
The first focuses on the massive technical and design achievements that make Shakespeare’s 1592 masterpiece of violence and deception literally smolder on the Montana Theatre stage. DJ Selmeyer’s lighting design is stunning. The rig, which reportedly utilizes every possible inch of mounting space above the stage, is visible from the audience, looking like a giant LiteBrite protruding from the ceiling, and casts single austere beams or ambient red washes with equal precision. During some scenes, lights positioned in the open orchestra pit give the feeling that the entire show is about to be engulfed.
The set itself, designed by DJ’s wife, Ranae, is a barren, multi-tiered, industrial wasteland. Its stark look not only sets a dire tone, but is functionally perfect, allowing Johnson to efficiently shift and shuffle a cast of 28 in and out of 160 minutes worth of scenes—a skill the director last flexed in UM’s A Christmas Carol two years ago.
The costume design by Meaghan C. Willis is similarly outstanding, with royal robes that look like works of art (especially King Edward IV’s get-up) and battle garments that strike an edgy balance between the play’s Wars of Roses-era roots and a contemporary Brooklyn club scene. Her subtle use of deep, blood-like purples, mauves and maroons to complement the copious amounts of silver and black is especially effective, both aesthetically and conceptually, considering the play’s murderous content.
All together, Richard III is the most visually awesome production UM has produced in years, and that’s no small accomplishment.
On the flip side, there’s a story beneath all those lights and costumes that continues to stand the test of time, and the not-so-simple task of effectively presenting it. This storytelling aspect is the second approach to discussing UM’s Richard III, and its outcome is a bit less clear.
The play boils down to a one-man character study of a greedy, ruthless killer, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester. From the very beginning the audience is introduced to his cunning and conniving demeanor, as he heartlessly seduces his cousin, Lady Anne, while she mourns next to the still-bleeding body of her father-in-law. Richard’s an ass, and in order to score England’s crown he sets off to systematically off anyone from his family tree who could possibly compete for power. The beauty of Shakespeare’s play is that Richard is the character the audience gets to know best. As his henchmen churn through the bodies, we see the ascendant’s humorous asides and rare glimpses of remorse. Shakespeare counts on his audience wrestling with the fact that they’ve got to love the one they’re with, and that one is a deformed and deranged devil.
Ande Copley plays Richard, and although he was often difficult to understand through a casual slur that would put Danny DeVito to shame, the majority of his performance in such a demanding role was engaging and spirited. He nails the two lines that matter most—“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer,” and “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”—and he got better as the play progressed, and appropriately more maniacal.
The problem is that where Copley seemed almost too at ease with Shakespeare’s prose, most of the remaining cast was stiffer than one of Richard’s victims. Numerous skilled actors who have appeared in and succeeded with other UM or local productions come across awkwardly. With few exceptions—Amber Rose Mason’s Queen Elizabeth and Tyler D. Nielson’s Catesby, as well as Whitney Wakimoto’s arrestingly strong Queen Margaret—the audience is left watching an endless and confusing revolving door of unspectacular supporting characters parade through until intermission. It seems to take an absolute eternity (actually 90 minutes), but what suffers the most is any sense of meaning. We’re never able to properly identify anyone before they end up dead. It’s like watching Richard shooting pigeons at target practice, except I think we’re supposed to care at least a little about the pigeons.
In addition to the cast’s inconsistencies, there was also one glaring element that seemed more distracting than substantive. A three-piece rock band is positioned behind the set, and aside from scoring a dream sequence and rousing fight at the play’s conclusion, their purpose is puzzling. For 95 percent of the play their contributions are super-quick musical interludes between scenes, each of which sounds like a clip from “Name That Tune,” best-of-Phish edition. The instrumentation is fine but its place in the play isn’t—the riffs come off more like TV sitcom transitions than mood-setters for Shakespeare.
That’s the thing that’s either frustrating or forgivable about Richard III, depending on your vantage point: Johnson has offered a daring version of the play, and with that comes wheat and chaff. The audience ends up trading mesmerizing visuals for misplaced music, expert blocking for choppy character development. And perhaps because the high points are so stratospheric, the flaws seem magnified, leaving this Richard uneven, almost brilliant, and, at the very least, admirably bold.
Richard III continues in UM’s Montana Theatre at the PARTV Center through Saturday, Dec. 9. 7:30 PM. $15/$12 students and seniors.