nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
August 14, 2010
Have you ever seen a bunch of mohawked, blood-smeared punks bounce from foot to foot, gleefully clapping to the music? They do in Less Than Rent's post-apocalyptic punk adaptation of Richard III in FringeNYC. There are many odd moments like that in this production, which is adapted and directed by 19-year-old James Presson; but with the fun of the overall aesthetic and the sheer bad-assery of Shakespeare's play itself, it's hard not to love it all the same.
Fitting Shakespeare's play to a punk world, in general, works really well. The lines, characters, and violent actions are well-suited to sneers and anarchy. Jake Ahlquist would be a kick-ass Richard in any production. He's snotty, incorrigible, relishes in his villainy and is, as a result, thoroughly irresistible whenever he's on stage. As in any punk play, the costumes and makeup are a central focal point (designed by Marissa Parkes). Expect lots of eyeliner, spikey hair, metal accents, and unusual weaponry (like a crutch, a golf club, baseball bats etc). My favorite costume choice was putting a legitimately mohawked Hastings (played by Patrick Fleury, who is excellent) in shorts made out of white trash-bag plastic wearing little else. The women in style are semi-punk but at the same time all look like ballerinas trapped in the wrong movie which also fits. This version really emphasizes that the royal ladies in the play are sequestered together, prisoners in a sense, while Richard and Buckingham kill off everyone they love.
There are some very smart leverages of text analysis as well. At the beginning of Lady Anne's big scene with Richard, she has a monologue for her dead father-in-law. The pattern of the verse suggests that she is not just cursing Richard to verbally vent, but actually casting a spell to hex him. This is made clear in this production, making Anne's character uniquely weird and also really suited to the world of the play. Also it seems like every time a character walks in the street (or moves scenery) they wear a black executioner's hood with slits for eyes. It gives the sense that killers are everywhere. So when Richard calls for "executioners" to murder his brother in his cell, there are naturally two readily at hand to do his bidding.
What worked less for me is the music. Not much of it is punk. In fact the drummer and guitar player who are on stage for the whole show are regrettably under-utilized. I would have liked to have heard a lot more music (particularly of a jack-hammer-tempoed variety) driving through the play. Instead there is, oddly, an abundance of a cappella singing...in harmony even. And apparently when Richard needs to woo difficult ladies, only a sweet crooning (sans instrumentation) will do. Most of the major characters have their moments at the mic to lead a song and the variety of vocal styles and song choices often jar against their costumes. Every performer has a great voice, but there is a lot of musical theatre pop going on and I wanted more Iggy Pop in general.
What works best of all is when the main characters speak Shakespeare's text, cut and heavily adapted as it was. The aesthetic of the world they create, combined with great chops across the board, delivers every time. Less Than Rent is mostly a company of (clearly well-trained) college students and recent grads, many making their NYC stage debuts. They know what they're saying, they layer in the attitude of their costumes, and totally run with it to great effect. Not often in musicals can you say the biggest treat is when the actors SPEAK but I could definitely say that about Richard 3—and how appropriate to defy tradition.