By Mary Boyle
While Shakespeare wrote a number of histories, there has been a bit of a revival of the eight plays concerned with the War of the Roses (the battles between the House of York and the House of Lancaster for the throne of England), in large part because of the BBC Television Film Series, The Hollow Crown, which was released in 2012 and featured a number of famed British actors, such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Dame Judi Dench, and Jeremy Irons. Earlier this season, the Bard & Bourbon Theatre Company took on Shakespeare's Henry V, the final play in Shakespeare's second tetralogy (series of four plays), which was preceeded by Richard II and Henry IV Part I and Part II. Now, they're on to Richard III which, although was written as the final play of the first tetralogy (after Henry VI, Parts I-III), actually comes later in chronological history. Is this all too confusing? Don't worry - just have a drink and enjoy B&B's telling of this monumental history.
While it may seem confusing to jump three plays in a series, it actually works very well. Henry V dies at the end of his play, leaving his son, Henry VI, too young to properly run the Kingdom. The land his father won in France is quickly reclaimed by the French armies, led by Joan of Arc, and the throne of England is being disputed over by two men: the Duke of York and the Duke of Somerset. The nobles take sides and wear the colors of their champions: white roses for York and red for Somerset; thus, the War of the Roses. Meanwhile, King Henry VI marries princess Margaret of France, and Somerset and his supporters align with the king, who is of the House of Lancaster, and the feud is now between the York and Lancaster Houses and their supporters.
To make the long story of Henry VI Parts I-III short, York's sons, Edward and Richard, take up the cause against the Lancasters. Richard kills Somerset in battle, and Henry VI, wanting to keep his seat, promises the throne will pass to the Yorks after his death. His wife, Queen Margaret doesn't like that plan and attacks the house of York, killing the eldest York and his youngest son. Edward and Richard's brother, George, joins the fight, and Edward is pronounced King at the battle of Towton, while Richard is named the Duke of Gloucester and George the Duke of Clarence. Edward marries Lady Elizabeth Grey and, within a couple of battles, Henry VI is imprisoned in the Tower of London, the three York brothers kill Henry and Margaret's son, the Prince, and Richard kills Henry VI. Edward's throne, at last, seems secure, but Richard has bigger plans than just helping his brother succeed.
Richard, the Duke of Glouscester (Ian Tully) is the lame, hunchbacked brother of the newly crowned Edward (Dylan Sladky); a cripple who has already been the cause of a number of royal deaths, but who nobody really takes seriously as a threat — a mistake that the remaining houses of York and Lancaster will come to regret. As it turns out, Richard has a vicious, remorseless, and cunning mind inside his broken body, and he uses it to get rid of everyone who stands in the way of his path to the throne, beginning with his brother, George, the Duke of Clarence (Bryant Mason). The widowed Queen Margaret (Maura Atwood) tries to warn them all about Richard but, as a Lancaster, she is ignored. Eventually, Richard can trust no one; even his closest confidants, Lord Buckingham (Sean Duncan), Lord Hastings (Bryant Mason) and Lord Catesby (Amber Regan). Even those who once supported him are hoping his evil reign will be defeated by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond (Maggie Arndt).
Richard III is the second longest play in Shakespeare's works, after Hamlet, but the text and the characters are pared down as far as they can be in this production while still keeping the heart of the story. Although the premise of the play is dark, there is always humor to be found where the Bard is concerned, and even more so when Bard & Bourbon gets a hold of it (I watched Bryant Mason drink over 16 shots of bourbon through the course of the play, which was good fun, though — to his credit — it didn't seem to affect him much). Ian Tully, who was also seen in B&B's Henry V, was delightfully twisted, but strong, as Richard, and the only actor to play just one character. Watch for Sean Duncan's smaller part as "Murderer 1" — he's simply brilliant. Dylan Sladky, who directed B&B's Twelfth Night (drunk) at the beginning of the season, demonstrates that he can act as well as he can direct, playing four different characters (one being a woman). Both Maggie Arndt and Maura Atwood make an impressive B&B debut as the valiant Earl of Richmond and the bitter Queen Margaret, respectively, among others, while Samantha Martinson and Amber Regan return to the B&B stage after both appearing in The Merry Wives of Windsor (drunk).
If you're new to, or intimidated by, Shakespeare, the Bard & Bourbon Theatre Co. is a good place to get acquainted, but even hardcore fans will enjoy these productions. The alcohol adds a fun unpredictability-factor to each performance, but the actors have to know their play well in order to accomodate that, and it's clear that they do. Besides, Shakespeare, didn't take himself too seriously — why should we? It's Shakespeare, it's history, and I promise it's a really good time!
Richard III runs through June 2 at the Tenth Street Theatre, located at 628 N. 10th St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased online at www.bardandbourbon.com.