Problematic history, uncertain present

Philly Fringe 2019: Hestia Theatre Company presents Shakespeare’s Richard III

In
2 minute read
Hestia’s ‘Richard III’ blazes a new path to Shakespeare. (Photo by Adaeze Nwoko.)
Hestia’s ‘Richard III’ blazes a new path to Shakespeare. (Photo by Adaeze Nwoko.)

As a classically trained, middle-aged, white male theater-maker, I have multiple issues with this production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, now on view for the Fringe from Hestia Theatre Company. In that assortment of problems lies the work’s considerable success.

This is not my Shakespeare, and it might well not be yours, but the resulting cognitive dissonance is exactly why it is worth your time. Director Hannah Wolff, with an extremely strong, all-women and non-binary cast, including Macy Jae Davis, Stephanie Iozzia, Sol Madariaga, Adaeze Nwoko, Minou Pourshariati, and Lisa VillaMil (the latter a standout), has closed a circle of nearly five centuries. When Shakespeare’s work was debuting, women weren’t allowed onstage, ensuring all roles were played by men. Wolff not only overturns this with her casting, but creates a liminal space, allowing for multiple readings of a previously fixed text.

Changing for the better

With a 90-minute run-time, this show’s changes to the commonly performed text are severe and often jarring, such as edits within the opening monologue. However, those emendations make the end of the production more resonant than I have ever found it. What is most revelatory about the casting is the possibility it raises that acting choices are gendered. At the exact moment any male leading actor would demonstrate his vocal prowess, these performers almost uniformly choose quiet intensity, and the effect is all the more devastating. This is not to imply that the actors are lacking in emotional or vocal range, for that would do their work a grave disservice. Rather, these performances enhance the intention of the character, not the reputation of the actor.

Necessary process

So, how does one mount Richard III without a dominant, histrionic titular character? Wolff’s solution is to position Richard not as the lead character, but rather as the fulcrum around which all else revolves. The result of this lensing is to transform the male-identified hierarchical pyramid into a feminist circle. All the characters in this reimagining are seeking agency, negotiating a problematic history, and trying to find their way in a murky and uncertain present.

The show is performed in Christ Church Burial Ground, creating a depth of atmosphere no other stage could achieve. While the directorial intention is one of setting as signifier, pointing to the play’s context at the end of the War of The Roses and illuminating hidden (or at least forgotten) history, I believe the practical aspect—grave as set piece—is more powerful than any historical reference.

Is this production sometimes problematic? Yes. However, the gaining of agency by historically marginalized communities will always be messy, and that cannot serve as an excuse to avoid the process. Although Richard III is Hestia Theatre Company’s first production, the audacity of their choices, and the nuanced nature of the cultural critique inculcated in those choices, announce that there is a vital new voice on the Philadelphia theater scene. Go see this show.

What, When, Where

Richard III. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Hannah Wolff. Through September 15, 2019 at Christ Church Burial Ground, 340 N. 5th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 413-1318 or fringearts.com.

Christ Church Burial ground is technically accessible by wheelchair. However, as it is a historic graveyard, it’s unpaved; the path is narrow and bumpy; and the grass is high.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation