The Baron’s Men company in Austin got started as a lark in 1997, when a group of friends inspired by the Society for Creative Anachronism put together a twenty-minute version of Henry V. They went on to perform occasional Shakespeare on portable platforms until in 2005 tech magnate Richard Garriot offered to put up an Elizabethan-style stage on his waterfront property. He was serious about it. Construction was sturdy, and capacity of the two covered stories and groundling area was about 250.
The company offered its first public performance a decade ago, and the baron’s enthusiastic men and women have gloried in their digs and duds ever since. The costumes they’ve accumulated under designer Dawn Allee-Hemphill’s supervision are voluminous, rich and period-correct. Leading actors in these productions could hold their heads high at any function at turn-of-the-seventeenth-century function at Whitehall or Blackfriars.
Their activity has increased to the point that they’re now offering three or four productions a year and sponsoring summer workshops for a local high school.
I’ve been used to a fair amount of elbow room in the stalls of the Curtain Theatre, for despite the site’s proximity to central Austin — only about twenty minutes from downtown — they have remained mostly undiscovered: they are caviar to the general. Imagine my astonishment when I drove down the dirt road through the dusty hills beyond Coldwater Canyon Road on the opening Friday evening to find the damp lakeside meadows jammed with parked cars. Lines were twenty deep at both ticket tables. I felt an unwarranted pang of deception. Some arrangement must have been made. Perhaps co-director Joe Falocco of Texas State University south of Austin had whistled up undergraduates from his home institution and put out an effective dragnet to the five other universities in the near region.
Uncertain of getting a good seat, I postponed my attendance. But I had to wait another fifteen minutes before the incoming traffic on that narrow road cleared enough to allow me to drive up and out.
On a Friday two weeks later the house was not crowded, but it was well populated. Falocco’s introductory remarks and admonitions were as good as a formal prologue. Richard III, the culmination of Shakespeare’s tetrology of histories, can be confusing for the uninitiated. The company integrated brief sections of the earlier-dated material in the opening, so we had perhaps five minutes of exposition before the ’winter of our discontent’ monologue with which Richard initiates his own schemes and drafts the audience as fully informed co-conspirators.
Richard’s a deep-dyed villain who can be played many ways, generally in some variant of resentful brooding. Tall, lean and agile, Andy Bond gives this Richard a detached and almost mischievous presence, the sociopath incarnate. Mapping his bloody way to the throne is of just about the same emotional weight to him as working out a game of sudoko. Bond’s casual mastery of Shakespearian verse is a treat. Every word is motivated. His delivery is strikingly low key and has the charm of apparent spontaneity.
In a group that’s an entirely amateur theatre company that’s a gift to be cherished. Everyone in this production had mastered the lines, but only Dave Yakubik as Richard’s co-conspirator Buckingham was as entirely at ease as Bond with the language. Both actors had no inhibitions in addressing themselves to the audience, an art that many on community stages find difficult.
Taylor Flanagan as Lady Anne, wooed and won over the corpse of her murdered husband, came close to their delivery, but Richard outstaged her grief and ferocity with his outrageous calm and guile. Also notable for a forceful performance was Leanna Holmquist as Queen Margaret, who becomes a lurking fury after Richard’s murder of Henry VI of the House of Lancaster; but this Margaret lays her lines down straight and strong and without great modulation or nuance. Heidi Penix emerges as a strongly drawn Queen Elizabeth, especially evoking our sympathy in her Act IV exchanges with Richard just after he has murdered her young sons and is hell bent on wedding her daughter.
Co-directors Falocco and Becky Musser use the full stage, side and front stairs and balcony above. Crowd scenes tended to be a bit static and spread out; all too often important speeches were delivered by actors facing full upstage, backs to the house. More ’cheating’ in stage position would have been welcome.
The plot of Richard III, caught up as it is for us in the inconveniences of a foreign history, may not easy for a U.S. audience to follow, and it generally holds us with the suspense of seeing what fiendish new villany the protagonist is willing to commit. The concluding battles are a bit heavy handed and cautious but they do provide clangor. The slaying of Richard is a clever bit of business, with Norfolk snatching up a dropped crossbow to loose an imaginary arrow that knocks the wicked king off the stage and out of sight. Bond will return for the curtain call, but not amongst the crowd; he steps forth upon the balcony to receive well deserved cheers.