Illinois State University's School of Theater dives into the winter of our discontent in a new production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
Director John Tovar has moved the action from the War of the Roses to a modern-day corporate environment to explore the timely message this play has to offer. The show depicts the Machiavellian rise to power and the short reign of King Richard III of England.
“We have the monarchy of England which everything is ultimately set around," Tovar explained. “But what we did is translate it into an international corporate conglomerate that is ultimately responsible for many other different factions, which are other subsidiary companies. We changed it in a way that makes it more relatable to a wider audience.”
Richard III may be stalking the halls of the corporate world and not tromping across a blood-soaked Bosworth Field in this virtual production, but he retains that essential part of his character that makes him at once appealing and repellent.
“I think it is safe to say that Richard III is a narcissist,” Tovar said. “In looking at the play and particularly those monologues that are directed to the audience, where he talks about how he’s going to play the villain, and how throughout he gets people, through manipulation, to do all these different things for him--he prides himself on being able to get anybody to do pretty much anything he wants. There’s definitely ego that goes with that.”
A striking aspect of “Richard III” involves the title character’s direct address to the audience. He reveals himself to the viewer and manages to beguile and manipulate the audience in much the same way he does the other characters in the play.
“He gets the audience on his side and gets them to understand why it is he’s doing what he’s doing, and that what he’s doing is ultimately right in order to better society," said Tovar. "By doing that both with the characters within the play and with the audience, especially at the beginning, the audience gets roped into that manipulation, right off the bat.
“And if the actor who is playing the role can do that in a way that the audience feels justified in siding with Richard at the start, then there is that moment in the play, like when the princes get killed, that the audience can go back and reflect and wonder why they thought it was okay in the first place when it’s gone to such an extreme.”
Tovar said that type of audience reflection allows the viewer to look at the wider scope of the world and consider other types of justification they see around them.
“It creates a nice, larger discussion, not only about the play, but in how people are viewing events taking place in current society.”
As per the pandemic, there’s a technical twist to the production, what many in the arts world refer to as a "technical challenge." Tovar revealed that he and his production team aren’t daunted by the tech challenges they face. One thing the director was certain to avoid was a staged reading over Zoom with just squares of actor’s faces reading lines from the play.
“We’re trying to push the envelope with that, when it comes to how can we use a platform like Zoom to our advantage to create a larger world. We’re going to do it as a live stream production.”
The play is broken up into two acts, with the first weekend as part one, with the second weekend being part two.
“We looked at it as a miniseries event that you would see on television. So that way, at the end of Act One, there’s this cliffhanger to get you to tune into next week," said Tovar. "One of the reasons we decided to do it like that is Zoom fatigue, for people watching things on Zoom, is a very real thing. So, we wanted to break it up and make it more palatable in that way.
“Now what we’re also looking at are the challenges of creating more of a world that you would be seeing in a typical theatrical setting.”
That would include creating background screens of locations and getting actors in costumes, which is where the contemporary setting of the play comes in very handy, allowing some of the actors to call on their own wardrobes to create costumes for their characters.
“I’m really thankful that this opportunity presented itself in this way because it allows the students to practice and play with a new medium that, in my opinion, is going to be something that is not going to go away, even when social distancing practices are released.”
“Richard III” will run in a Zoom performance at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 29-31, and at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 5-7. Tickets are free and are available from the ISU Center for the Performing Arts website. Performances are limited to 300 attendees.
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