By LeeAnn Neal, For the Argus
Shakespeare’s tragedy “Richard III” is known for its underlying black humor.
But a fresh take on the nearly 425-year-old play adds an element of slapstick while letting the audience witness the action through the lead character’s eyes.
As protagonist, Richard “is actually the bad guy,” said Scott Palmer, director of Bag&Baggage theater’s outdoor adaptation of “Richard III.” “But he’s much more the bad guy in sort of a comic way. The villain you love to hate. He’s a buffoon, a clown. … We’re approaching it that way.”
The original “Richard III” tells the story of Richard, brother to King Edward IV, who, resentful of his brother’s royal status and his own physical deformity, plots to displace his sibling on the throne, no matter who he has to manipulate, falsely accuse or murder in order to do so.
Those familiar with Frank Underwood of the Netflix series “House of Cards,” will recognize Richard’s penchant for sharing his true motivation and feelings with the audience while deceiving other characters.
“It’s one of the key elements of Richard as a character and why he’s been so popular,” said Palmer. “He’s just so charming – he’s a delightful villain. He nods and winks and lets the audience in on his plans. That’s one of the reasons the play is so successful – the audience feels a connection with him.”
Although Shakespeare depicted Richard as disfigured, his physical condition often the target of insults from other characters, this production portrays him as “perfectly formed,” said Palmer.
Palmer developed the concept of a more Richard-centric version of the play while serving as artistic director of the Glasgow Repertory Company in Scotland 12 years ago. “I was talking with the actor I had cast to play Richard and he said something like, ‘I love the way that Richard sees the world,'” said Palmer. “I immediately thought to myself ‘I bet our audiences would like to see the world through Richard’s eyes, too.'”
The following year, Palmer produced and directed his adaptation of “Richard III,” which, while controversial, was lauded by a number of critics for its unique methodology.
Prior to rehearsals for the upcoming North American premiere of the show, “One of the actors asked me … how they should prepare,” said Palmer. “I told them to watch a lot of ‘Monty Python,’ study some Restoration comedy and brush up on their physical comedy skills. They are definitely going to need them.”
Actors will perform on stage and among audience members during the outdoor Hillsboro production, said Palmer. “We have actors walking through the audience and whole scenes taking place in the audience. For actors to have the ability to walk around and not be restricted by a traditional theater space – it’s pretty cool to see.”
Palmer predicts audiences will love Bag&Baggage resident actor Peter Schuyler as Richard. “Pete is a charming actor and a really funny guy. It will be fun for our audiences who know him, who have seen him in these big dramatic roles suddenly giving a character a wedgie or riding another character like a horse.”
“To shed the hunchback, drop the crutches, and play the character as he sees himself is a once in a lifetime opportunity and, really, is something I could only do at Bag&Baggage,” said Schuyler, whose B&B roles have included Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” and John Proctor in “The Crucible.”
Schuyler, who acted in a comedic stage version of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” while performing in New York years ago, said, “‘Richard III’ is not the first time I’ve done comedy. It’s the first time I’ve done comedy for Scott. And that was part of the attraction. I think it’s going to be like something that you’ve never seen before. I think people initially are going to have their hair blown back and say, ‘Well, this isn’t the Richard that I know.’ And that’s kind of the point. This (play) offers Richard’s perspective. He’s the smartest guy in the room, at least to him.”
Other cast members of the local production include B&B resident actors Cassie Greer as Lady Anne and the Duchess of York, Joey Copsey as Clarence and Prince Edward, Gary Strong as the Bishop of Ely and Queen Margaret, and Eric St. Cyr as Lord Hastings. The cast also includes Portland-based actors Marie Sierra as Queen Elizabeth and the murderer James Tyrell, and Sam Jones as Lord Rivers and Lord Richmond. Costumes are designed by B&B Resident Artist Melissa Heller.
Heller’s designs for “Richard III” are “these crazy, really wild kind of Restoration-style costumes,” said Palmer. “They are going to be hilarious. Lady Anne has this huge kind of medieval dress with a martini glass as a hat.”
Although many people who are unfamiliar with Shakespeare tend to doubt they will enjoy a production of his work, Palmer said that won’t be the case.
“People say, ‘It’s dry, it’s long, I don’t understand the language or what’s going on.’ But our productions are known for being very accessible. The original version of the play is three hours long and ours is two, so it has been trimmed. I think anybody unfamiliar with the play will get a lot out of it and anyone who has seen the play will never see it like this again.”
IF YOU GO: “Richard III” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. outdoor performances July 22 through 25 and July 29 through Aug. 1 at the Tom Hughes Civic Center Plaza at 150 E. Main Street in downtown Hillsboro. Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased at bagnbaggage.org or by calling 503-345-9590. There will be no seating provided at this outdoor performance. Audience members can bring lawn chairs, blankets and cushions.