If ever there was a Shakespearian court suited to the boozy sounds of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, it was Edward the Fourth’s, that son of York who turned the winter of civil war discontent to glorious summer—however fleetingly. The king’s white rose faction had emerged the victor after years of civil strife and so the time was apt for a few drinks and some revels.
Richard III Born With Teeth (the strikethrough is intended) by Epic Theatre Ensemble takes full advantage of this license to party, as the cast drunkenly mingles with the audience at the play’s open—even inviting spectators up on stage to meet the king himself—before starting the play and moving quickly to a full-blown choreographed bacchanal: music pounds as performers dance, swing, canoodle, and generally celebrate the excesses yielded by victory.
But of course a cloud looms over the white summer of York in the form of the king’s brother Richard, soon to blaze a bloody path of his own to the crown. The court revels, but Richard stands silently glowering from the balcony, as if allowing his prey one last turn in the sun before methodically and even-handedly dispatching any who would obstruct his ascent to the throne.
Bedecked in sharp modern dress and a rowdy contemporary soundscape, Born With Teeth heartily embraces the freewheeling morality of its protagonist and ends up a celebration of Shakespeare’s most charming villain. Underscoring the absurd extent of Richard’s depravity, Epic counterbalances the freedom of Richard against the horrific effects of his actions in a production that reexamines the nature of this character’s villainy. And while some of the show’s innovations slide occasionally into gimmickry, the result is a vivid and penetratingly fresh portrait of King Richard III.
Richard III opens as the bloody Wars of the Roses conclude with the House of York defeating its Lancastrian adversary for the throne. The play is Shakespeare’s fourth in a series dramatizing the Wars of the Roses, and it contains a number of references that rely upon the audience’s familiarity with its predecessors, the three parts of Henry VI. With innovative flashback techniques, Epic intersperses pertinent scenes from the Henry VI plays in order to give context and grounding to the conflict of Richard III. While the abruptness and rapidity of the flashbacks threatens to be more confusing than enlightening, the strategy helpfully rounds out the characters of Queen Margaret and even Richard himself.
A powerful warrior queen in the Henry VI plays, Margaret is reduced to a bitter and railing outsider in Richard III, but the flashbacks reveal her at the height of her martial prowess. Likewise, audiences of Richard III are regularly asked to take Richard at his word that he was a packhorse in the great affairs that “royalized” the blood of Edward IV, but Epic’s flashbacks show him vividly battling for the York cause. These flashbacks are indicative of Born With Teeth’s distinction from Richard III: while staying mostly faithful to its source (a few cuts, a few reorganized scenes), it is a production dedicated more to the psychological exploration of its characters than to the simple representation of Shakespeare’s play.
In turning that exploratory gaze on its central character, Epic finds in Richard not the familiar malformed, snarling villain, but rather a cool sociopath. James Wallert’s portrait of the duke-turned-king is marked by a smirk more than a sneer, and a temperament that rarely wavers from an even-handed frankness. His opening soliloquy eschews the familiar variety of tone rising to disingenuous pride and falling to bitter evilness, moving instead through an even-keeled assessment of his family’s fortunes and his own limitations. Throughout the play, Wallert’s Richard very rarely wanders from his cool temperament as he calmly puts one foot in front of the other to make his way to the English throne. If a head needs to be chopped off or a couple of young princes murdered along the way, then that’s what Richard will do, never seeming maniacal or emotional about his actions.
The effect is to throw into sharp relief the pain and psychological turmoil stirred up in Richard’s wake. As Wallert’s Richard downplays the extremity of his crimes, the play works to accentuate their magnitude. The bloody head of the executed Hastings gets tossed around haphazardly in a plastic bag, and even more vividly, the child-sized shirts and ties of the murdered princes are paraded about as evidence of their slaughters. Happening offstage, the princes’ murders is only reported in Shakespeare’s script, but Epic’s use of the bloody shirts refuses to allow the production to gloss over the horror of the crime. Wallert’s Richard finds great joy and humor in the bloody shirts, while even his coconspirators recognize the growing extremity of their crimes.
The juxtaposition highlights Born With Teeth’s deep investment in exploring the unique psychology of Richard III. Shakespeare gives us one penetrating glimpse into this king as he lies alone in his tent before the play’s climactic battle, and Wallert takes full advantage of the scene to explore the bitter self-loathing of Richard concealed behind his public face elsewhere in the production. As Wallert removes the back brace that has hidden the trademark hump throughout the play, he curls into the malformed and scornful monster so familiar of the play’s performance history in order to show us briefly all the rage underlying his smirking sociopath of a king. Even in its brevity, the scene is a powerful and needed contribution to this character.
Richard III Born With Teeth toes the line between reverence for Shakespeare and freedom of interpretation, wavering to both sides with varying levels of success throughout the production, but it ultimately finds room for an insightfully unique approach to an oft-staged character, and a penetrating analysis of the repercussions of sociopathic villainy.