There’s something illuminating and fun about the privilege of seeing actors rehearse. Before curtain, the charming chaos that’s usually restrained to the wings bursts forth and threatens to overcome the stage, only to be cunningly tucked away again as the lights go down.
The Rude Mechanicals present “Richard II”
At the Duderstadt Video Center
Today at 7 p.m., tomorrow at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.
$3 for students
Wednesday’s dress rehearsal of the Rude Mechanicals’ “Richard II” had all of the pre-performance bustle that characterizes the week approaching opening night: prop mishaps, actors all around the auditorium lunging with swords and practicing death scenes. But from the opening scene onward the student-run Rude Mechanicals’ adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play was pure professionalism, and a polished, poignant, almost relentless retelling of a British king’s journey from opulent robes to prison garb.
The audience is masterfully integrated into the play, surrounding the ‘H’-shaped stage on all sides. As a venue, the modern Duderstadt Video Center is a bit unconventional for a classical play, but staging the production there signifies a commitment to audience involvement. The seating configuration nearly puts the audience in Richard’s place, receiving visitors and settling onto his throne. You’re close enough to see the actor’s saliva fly through the air during some particularly impassioned speeches. And the actors are not limited to the stage — they wander the floor, making eye contact with audience members with such intimacy that it’s impossible to escape from the action of the play.
“I want a play to hurtle into an audience from all sides,” LSA senior and director James Manganello said. “It’s not just in-the-round for the actors, in that they’re being viewed from all sides — the play also surrounds the audience.”
Also surrounding the audience are video screens bearing images mainly collected from Russian montage films. Black and white scenes of industry and urban landscapes accompany the action on stage.
“The projections were a way to envelop the audience – to give them a sense of a larger world outside the play,” Manganello said. “I love the montage aesthetic, the way they make you put two seemingly distinct things together. That’s a bit what I hope to do when I direct: to be unconfined by ‘realism’ and depict a deeper truth that pulls upon the audience’s own cognitive maneuvers.”
This idea of melding two disparate things together resonates throughout the play. The precise time period is difficult to discern (there are trench coats and bowler hats, swords and guns), but the setting references the Industrial Revolution, which coincides with the political revolution demonstrated through Shakespeare’s words and characters.
“(There’s) a shift from wealth being demonstrated by luxury goods from faraway, exotic places to a more commodified economy, in which quantity and profit determines value,” Manganello said. “Both (worlds) are always in negotiation with each other.”
The play examines this shift while focusing on the more personal journey of a king becoming simply a man (with Richard) and an average man becoming a king (with his successor, Henry Bolingbroke.) The play opens with King Richard in a majestic robe, holding an exotic drink, a parasol draped over his throne — a tableau unimaginable at the end of the play. The downfall of the young and poetic, yet smug king is sympathetically portrayed by LSA senior Alexandra Clement-Jones, especially when he breaks down, coming in contact with his mortality in the famous speech that ends “How can you say to me, I am a king?” But the king who swaggers and smirks in the face of others’ emotional pleas (the moving deathbed speech by Manganello’s John of Gaunt comes to mind) cannot be too sympathetic, and Clement-Jones balances the two well as Richard’s childlike arrogance turns to poignant self-awareness.
Like “Hamlet,” “Richard II” has a legacy of actresses playing the title role, and Manganello maintains Clement-Jones was simply the best performer for the part.
“Alex said something to me very early on in the process that became our touchstone for moving ahead,” he explained. “She said we shouldn’t play Richard as a man or a woman, but as a creature. That’s what we’ve done and I’m very, very proud of her enormous achievement.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Rude Mechanicals’ production of “Richard II” is that it takes a play that could be so easily dominated by one character and turns it into an ensemble piece, with standout performances by even the actors with the smallest roles. After all, “Richard II” is the first in a tetralogy of history plays, and the other characters must be left able to carry on the torch. Setting an inauspicious tone for Richard’s successor, the production both presages what’s to come and represents a self-contained world, one that depicts Richard’s rise and fall in a fresh and intriguing way.