UMS and Britain's all-male Propeller theater company bringing 'Richard III' and 'Comedy of Errors' to town
photo by Manuel Harlan
The actors who originally performed in Shakespeare’s plays were all men, so in at least one way, Britain’s innovative, pop-culture-embracing, all-male Propeller theater company — now bringing “Richard III” and “The Comedy of Errors” to Ann Arbor, presented by the University Musical Society — hearkens back to an earlier time.
Even so, contemporary audiences are no longer accustomed to seeing men play women’s roles on a regular basis. So what’s the effect of reinstating this practice now?
“Primarily, audiences are more conscious of the jump the actor is making in performing the part,” said Edward Hall, director and founder of Propeller (and son of Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall). “Richard Clothier is no more like Richard III than Robert Hands is like Adriana (in ‘Comedy’), but the audience doesn’t have as much of a sense of that because he’s a man playing a male character (With men in women’s roles,) the actor’s process is more nakedly on display for an audience. So you buy your ticket, go on a journey, and suspend your belief from the word ‘go.’”
Yet in terms of design, Propeller neither plays up nor plays down the dissonance.
“We’re not trying to con the audience to believe someone’s really a woman, when it’s obviously a man, so we costume them has we would any other character, and approach them just as seriously,” said Hall.
“Richard III” tells the story of Shakespeare’s most unabashedly villainous (and arguably most compelling) king, who kills and claws his way to the crown, only to be haunted by his acts of violence while fighting to keep his title.
Normally, of course, we don’t think of “Richard III” as being particularly funny.
photo by Manuel Harlan
“Which surprises me, because I always thought it was,” said Hall. “One of the enduring things about the play, and the reason it survives, is Richard’s not a black and white villain. He’s very seductive, in his way. And right from the beginning, the play has a twinkle to it. It’s this polarizing play, where you have these wonderful passages, these moments of beauty alongside moments of great horror. The play is full of these contradictions. And I thought it would be interesting to pull those out.”
According to the generally glowing reviews for Propeller’s production of “Richard III,” both the bloody horror of the play’s violence, as well as its potential for humor, get full play on stage.
“It really challenges your notions of right and wrong,” said Hall. “You can’t color anyone with one, simple brush. Morality is a hard thing to pin down, and that’s one of the things that Shakespeare debates and challenges in the texts he writes. You start to think more about every judgment call you make and actually think for yourself, which is important in this media-hungry environment we live in.”
Like “Richard III,” “Comedy of Errors” was written early in Shakespeare’s career, and this was part of the draw for Hall in pairing them together.
“They’re both quite violent plays, and both quite funny for different reasons,” said Hall. “I think for me personally, how the two plays speak to each other and the audience is not by way of their sameness, but how very different they are. They feel as though they’re written by two entirely different writers, but they’re not, and it’s fascinating. There’s a tragedy and a comedy, but which is which? And there are radical changes in tone all over the place, so you feel the energy of a young man, a young playwright, pouring out on the page.” “Comedy” focuses on two sets of estranged twins, separated at birth, who find themselves in the same city 25 years later.
Hall has previously remarked that staging “Comedy” was much harder than staging “Richard.”
“For me as a director, there’s something so finely keen about staging a comedy,” said Hall. “There’s a right and wrong way to do every little thing. How to walk on stage, how to walk off stage, how to make a scene work - it’s a finite science, not random at all. It’s painstaking, careful work.”
This is why, according to Hall, actors involved in rehearsing a comedy are miserable and stressed, while those involved with tragedies are having fun digging into the dark corners of a character. (Hall also noted that when a comedy goes right, the roles are reversed once performances get underway, and the comic actors have responses from the audience to go on.)
So what may look like silly anarchy on a stage — like a naked man running through the theater with a lit sparkler protruding from his backside, according to one review — in fact demands meticulous planning and control. And unlike Shakespeare’s later comedies, “which often have three or four plots, and the play just flits from plot to plot, ‘Comedy of Errors’ has one plot. But it’s immensely warmhearted when you get it right.”
So although “Comedy” isn’t produced nearly as often as “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Twelfth Night,” among others, it appears to have won Hall’s heart.
“Great farces have to have characters that you care about,” said Hall. “But as a director, you also have to be alert to the play’s changes in tone, and make sure you don’t miss them, or else it won’t mean anything.”