The Independent Shakespeare Company opened this year’s Griffith Park Free Shakespeare Festival with Colley Cibber’s 1699 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III written in 1592. As the company’s artistic director and director of this production Melissa Chalsma wrote in the program, Colley Cibber's adaptation focuses on the action by “consolidating the sweeping, complex history into something sleek and concentrated.” Since its first performance at Drury Lane in 1699, this version dominated English-speaking theatre over two centuries. By incorporating several chronicles written in the 16th and 17th centuries into his text, Cibber made his adaptation more entertaining by allowing both Richard and his victims to be more expressive about their feelings. Cibber version also eliminated some characters—George Clarence, Richard’s older brother, for example—from the play to reduce the complexity of relationships among the characters. He also added a scene between Lady Anne and Richard after their marriage, where he laughs and scorns his wife just before sharing with the audience his plan to kill her. This scene contrasts with Richard’s seduction of Anne at her husband’s funeral.
In Shakespeare’s play, the young princes never reappear after they are sent to the Tower. In Cibber’s adaptation, Prince Edward (Tatiana Louder) and his younger brother Duke of York (April Fritz) appear in the fourth act; where, they are taken from their mother Elizabeth (Aisha Kabia) and murdered by Ratcliff (Jack Lancaster) and Forrest (Brandon Wong). Their gruesome double-murder is shown on stage rather than merely referenced as in Shakespeare.
The company’s co-founder David Melville in the role of Richard portrays a sly, manipulative, and seductive villain. His hunched posture and staggering gait combined with a cautious demeanor evoke both pathos and humor. This was underscored by him entering through the audience and beginning his lines as he approaches to the stage. Chalsma brings the audience into the play when an electric guitar version of the national anthem is played for Richard seated on the throne, and the audience is encouraged to chant “Richard, Richard.” In the scene of the battle of Bosworth, Richards shouts, from the lawn, "A Horse, a Horse/My Kingdom for a Horse," suggesting that he has been fighting without a horse on Bosworth Fields for some time. On stage, he swings around the electric guitar he played in his fight with the Earl of Richmond (Evan Lewis Smith), adding an “excitement” just before his death.
The three strong female characters further animate the show. Queen Margaret (Kalean Ung) engages with Richard, using her sharp tongue to demonstrate her hatred and disdain. Later, she plots revenge with Elizabeth and the Duchess of York (Bernadette Sullivan), who have also suffered under Richard. Mary Goodchild’s Lady Anne perhaps best expresses the depravity and callousness of Richard, combined with his charm, as she moves from rage and disgust to infatuation, and finally ending in fear and despair.
The set designer, Caitlin Lainoff, keeps the stage simple, using just moveable blocks, a chair for props, and three simplified “chandeliers” over the stage and doors. Yet by using the slope occupied by the audience, she expands the performance into the setting. The performance begins before sunset and, as night falls, the lighting designer, Bocco Flannagan, illuminates the stage to suggest the court, the Tower, and battlefields. The final battle of Bosworth is represented by actors carrying flags representing the House of York (a white rose on a black cloth) and for the House of Lancaster (a red rose on a white cloth) who charge and counter-charge on stage.
The costumes designed by Garry Lennon reflect the medieval period, except for Louder and Fritz who as the two princes are dressed like young hip hop stars. This intentional mashup adds playfulness to the production.
The rock band (all of the musicians play some parts of the play) of electric guitars play music composed by David Melville who also plays the guitar in the band. Other musicians also play such roles as the Duke of Buckingham (Evan Lewis Smith), Forrest (Brandon Wong), Ratcliff (Jack Lancaster), and Lord Tirrel (Victor Manso). Watching them switching their roles as actors and musicians was another delight of the evening.
Founded in New York City in 1998 by a group of young actors and relocated to Los Angeles in 2001, the Independent Shakespeare Company has mounted a number of Shakespeare plays with its diverse cast members. Their summer festival was launched in 2003 in Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles. The festival’s site moved to the Old Zoo in Griffith Park in Los Angeles in 2010.
Cibber’s action-based adaptation is an excellent choice for the company’s outdoor production at its Summer Festival. When we arrived at 5:45PM (the show starts at 7PM), half of the slope facing the stage in the Old Zoo area of Griffith Park was filled with people of all ages and colors enjoying picnics with friends and family.
Richard III is followed by The Tempest (directed by Matthew Ernest) which opens in July 30 and runs through September 4, 2016.