University Theatre's <i>Richard III</i>.
Shakespeare's plays have been translated, interpreted and reexamined on stages all over the world in the four centuries since they were written. In University Theatre's new production of Richard III (through May 3 at UW Vilas Hall's Mitchell Theatre), director David Furumoto infuses the bloody story of royal machinations and betrayals with elements of kabuki, incorporating traditional makeup, costumes, dance, music, vocal styles and staging. While the combination of a classical western text and eastern performance conventions puts a familiar story in an interesting new light, the performers tended to be hindered by the concept rather than helped by it.
In this "fusion" interpretation, the actors strike kabuki poses as they finish important speeches and let their voices fly up several octaves when they are making passionate pronouncements. Rather than enhancing each character's emotions, however, these movements seem to replace them. They become an expected and strange punctuation at the end of each scene. Some of the other traditional Japanese dance elements are so jarring that they feel either inorganic or under-rehearsed, despite good intentions.
At the center of the story is Richard, a deformed villain who is determined to wreak havoc on the royal court from the first moments of the play. Normally portrayed as a hunchback, Daniel Millhouse instead manifests the king's "rudely stamp'd" and "unfinished" body in a claw-like, three-fingered hand and a slight limp. His inherent evil is worn on his face, with elaborate blue kabuki makeup that distorts him more and more as the play goes on. Unfortunately, Millhouse seems overwhelmed by the mannerisms ascribed to kabuki villains.
Several performers do make real emotional connections with their fellow actors and with the audience. Standouts in the large cast include Heather Pickering as Queen Elizabeth, Shannon Davis as the grieving widow Lady Ann, John Cooper as the doomed sibling Clarence, and Alejandro Ortiz as Richard's co-conspirator Buckingham.
The story itself -- about ambition, greed, treacherous alliances and violent ends -- easily transcends the British court where it was originally placed. It is aided in its translation by the gorgeously rendered set (designed by Seth Campbell), which evokes the gray stone walls of the Tower of London and stained-glass windows of an English country church, combined with the lilting lines of Japanese landscape paintings.
Likewise, the sumptuous, multilayered costumes (designed by Christa Lewandowski) use many traditional Japanese fabrics, wigs, kimonos and sashes, while incorporating some Elizabethan design touches and other elements that are pure fantasy. Elaborately constructed and minutely detailed, the costumes created stage magic of their own in some key scenes and provided many striking entrances and exits. The realization of these ambitious designs, combined with the sheer number of costumes used in the production, is a stunning accomplishment for Lewandowski and the department.
Adding to the visual spectacle, several actors fly across the stage, a special effect used in kabuki since the 19th century. Although it is extremely effective during a ghost-filled nightmare, the effect slows the action of the final battle scene to a beautiful crawl, removing much of the passion and urgency.
As an opportunity for both students and audiences to experience an eastern influenced interpretation of Shakespeare, this production is a terrific laboratory. It very well may lay the groundwork for more balanced experiments in the future.