Audience members coming into the Theater Department’s production of Richard III the weekend before Thanksgiving break were greeted by a rumbling, militant drumbeat: a six-member troupe of Wesleyan’s taiko drummers, lined up across the front of the CFA Theater’s stage. Behind them, through the massive open doors of the proscenium, the cast could be seen warming up on the industrial looking set, stretching, swinging, and doing pull-ups and push-ups. They looked like people preparing for a battle, and that militant mood carried throughout this tightly- paced, masterful, and sometimes-brutal performance directed by Frank B. Weeks Visiting Professor of Theater David Jaffe that served as the performance component of Emma Sherr-Ziarko ’11 and Ben Vigus’ ’11 honors theses.
After the initial performance was complete, the audience was escorted into the two-tiered, in-the-round seating that had been constructed around Adjunct Assistant Professor of Theater Marcela Oteíza’s set: four steel pillars rising out of a grated section of the floor, with a chain-link net spread between them to form a platform. Cast member Dakota Gardner ’11 began a slow, monotonous drumbeat on his own taiko drum as the rest of the cast hurried about the stage, often carrying weapons, and latecomers arrived. And then, suddenly, the rest of the taiko ensemble joined him and they brought the call to arms to a sharp, echoing finish. And the play began.
As the amount of attention that went into the performance before a single word was spoken suggests, this was a masterful and intelligently-crafted production. Technically, the production shone: Oteíza’s set, which consistently reinforced the martial feel of the play (I thought it looked like an excellent place for a cage match), worked well with visitor Ji-youn Chang’s lighting design to create barren, stripped-down landscapes. The costumes, designed by Artist in Residence Leslie Weinberg and her costume design class, had a feel of opulence and elegance strained to the breaking point by war. Everything in the production contributed to the building of a violent, battered world filled with people of questionable morality, many of whom had grown used to living in a land of constant conflict.
The performances were also superb. Sherr-Ziarko and Vigus handily stole the show in their portrayal of two separate but united personalities of the title villain. The exact nature of the relationship of these two who were occupying the same body was never clear—early in the performance I thought that Vigus was the diplomat and Sherr-Ziarko the ambitious warrior. This changed rapidly—but this did not distract from the power and verve of their performance. A surprisingly large number of Richard’s speeches work well as dialogues, particularly later in the play as he starts to (in this case, literally) come face-to-face with the ghosts of his victims and his own iniquities.
Despite the power of this unusual staging, an incredible performance came from the show’s eight-member ensemble as well. Each played many roles, swapping personalities as easily as costumes. Among the standouts were Joshua Margolin ’11, who played Richard’s aide the Duke of Buckingham with a hard-eyed pragmatism, a wry humor, and a villainous goatee. Arielle Levine ’11 was also excellent as the widowed and dethroned Queen Margaret, the first to hate Richard (for killing her husband, Henry VI) and, in this production, prophetic narrator of the traitor’s downfall. Samantha Pearlman ’11 played a canny and war-weary Queen Elizabeth (wife to Richard’s elder brother and mother of the princes he infamously murdered), balancing her personal loathing for Richard with the necessities of political power struggles. The rest of the ensemble consisted of Sabina Friedman-Seitz ’11, who skillfully tackled the daunting Lady Anne who loathes but comes to marry Richard; Gardner, who showed great dexterity as one of the few cast members to play heavily against his gender as Richard’s mother the Duchess of York; Ross Shenker ’11, who played the rebellious part of Lord Hastings and the cold murderer James Tyrrel; Julian Silver ’12, both Richard’s older brother and the Earl of Richmond who deposes him; and Zach Libresco ’13, who portrayed Richard’s attendant Catesby and a charmingly innocent murderer.
Despite the huge number of people involved, by the end of the play the two Richards were left well and truly alone, with only each other for company—and that, dubious company at best. Richard died as he lived; simply and viciously, ending the play with a spear pushed through him.