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There Will Be Blood

...and a Few Laughs in This Aspiring Shakespeare Production

LIKE THIS: Brendan Ragan shows Giti Jabaily how to smile through this winter of our discontent.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/30/2008

Richard III

By William Shakespeare

At Single Carrot Theatre through Aug. 3

Single Carrot Theatre's Richard III may end up being the most ambitious production to hit Baltimore all year. Five actors and three actresses flesh out 27 roles in this rather faithful adaptation of the tragedy, which Shakespeare riddled with a liberal amount of gallows humor that doesn't go unnoticed in the production. It's staged in an intimate black box, 40 seats set in two rows along opposite sides of the room, and the production makes use of every remaining inch, as actors ascend up a raised level and momentarily flee to small nooks between seats. Scene changes transpire under the cover of a floor-mounted blue light or bathed in spotlights' soft glow, turning costume changes into a sort of transforming tai chi. Director and Single Carrot co-founder J. Buck Jabaily and the entire young company have really bitten off more than they can chew here.

Everything about this Richard III bears the weight of that ambition. From the dominant color scheme of coal black and blood red to the impudent ahistorical wardrobe--a burst of flapper cool run afoul of garish 1970s British crime flick--from the unfortunate soundtrack to the ingenious executions (a blade slices into leafy cabbages rather than fleshy necks), Single Carrot tries to put its own mark on a beast of a play. And what it's come up with is quite keen: This production sees Shakespeare's Richard III as the original gangster, the sort of treacherously murderous schemer who makes Michael Corleone look like Gandhi.

It's a reading the play more than warrants. It opens with a corpse--literally, as a shroud-covered body sits in the middle of the room greeting visitors as they enter--King Henry VI's body, recently dispatched from this life by Richard's (Brendan Ragan) plotting, putting Richard's brother Edward (Rich Espey) on the throne. And even though Edward recently acquired the crown, Richard is already wondering how to get it for himself. And he doesn't care what he has to do to get it--whether it be seduce Henry's widow Lady Anne (Giti Jabaily) or, you know, plot the deaths of Richard's brother Clarence (also Espey), Edward's wife Elizabeth's (Jessica Garrett) brother Rivers (Richard Goldberg), Edward's sons Prince Edward (Genevieve de Mahy) and the Duke of York (also Giti Jabaily), Edward supporter Lord Hastings (Elliott Rauh), or Richard's own confidant Buckingham (Aldo Pantoja).

In other words, Richard kills almost the entire cast on and off stage. It's a fact that doesn't really register while watching the play, but it adds a nice wrinkle to the story's murderous rampage when you realize it. This Richard III is spiced with such layered touches, primarily because the cast is so small. It's a fairly complicated play as is, made even more problematic by everybody--save Ragan's Richard--appearing in more than one role. The multiple roles eventually start to add resonant layers to the story--as if every person Richard turned against eventually gets to turn on him--but it can still be a tad hard to parse if you're not cursorily familiar with the play.

The gambit does allow for some standout acting moments. Both Jabaily and de Mahy are one-dimensional young men as Prince Edward and the Duke of York, but each brings verbal confidence and malevolent streak to other roles. Jabaily's Lady Anne is a barely contained hand grenade waiting to explode when she confronts Richard above her late husband's body, and the petite actress invests some of the play's first choice lines--"If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,/ Behold this pattern of thy butcheries."--with rabid spite. De Mahy is even better as the former Queen Margaret, a spectral bag lady in hodgepodge skirt and a bird's nest of hair, eyes and hands jittery as she spits eloquent curses at Richard's cohorts.

Richard is rightfully the centerpiece here, and Ragan approaches him less as a grotesque creation than a master manipulator. The limp remains--Richard hobbles around House-like on a silver-handled cane (one of the many ways Ragan discloses Richard's infelicitous public face is the way he confidently moves across the stage when alone, the cane merely a convenient prop)--but Ragan's Richard is prep-school handsome, verbally agile, and can bounce from stentorian authority to salesman smarmy in the blink of an eye, all the while balancing Richard's homicidal plots with his droll asides. The effect is a bit of like casting Topher Grace to star in Gangster No. 1.

The play suffers more in its details, under the strain of trying to do so much with this small cast and in this contained space. Some scene changes are fluidly integrated into the play's drive, but others--and, remember, Richard III is originally a five-act play with 25 scenes--are more cumbersome and momentum-halting. The background music, at first appropriately mood-setting, becomes monotonously redundant. And some performers just don't have the acting bag of tricks to pull off more than three characters in one production. So while Single Carrot's Richard III doesn't always hold together very well over the course of its two hours or so, it's an enervating thrill to watch such reckless creative energy unfold before your eyes.

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