Richard III, New York style

Vagabond’s latest Shakespearian adaptation embraces guns, gangsters and gore

Vagabond’s Richard III combines The Sopranos and Shakespeare in a murder-filled bloodbath.
Vagabond’s Richard III combines The Sopranos and Shakespeare in a murder-filled bloodbath.
Photo: 

Contributor Four strangulations, eight gangland style executions, one death by multiple gunshots, one death by physical assault, two deaths by poisoning and one death by hammer—that’s the way Vagabond, the student-run Shakespeare Repertoire company founded last year by Ryan LaPlante and Nathaniel Fried, is advertising their second show, Richard III.

Vagabond was formed with the goal of bringing Shakespeare to the masses. It’s a daunting task—three plays in seven months and each of them difficult works. With their second show, director Ryan LaPlante has taken some liberties. It’s not as daring as their first show, Romeo & Juliet, but setting Richard III in the midst of a gang war in 1920s New York is an interesting twist. This change results in some stretched definitions. The audience is meant to believe that Prince, King and Duke are all mobster nicknames rather than titles. The shift allows the director to show some flexibility in the way the play is carried out.

Fried gives a competent if not profound performance in the lead role. He does a goob job of making the character accessible, but his Richard lacks the gravity to truly capture Richard’s villainy.

It’s in the supporting roles where the company really shines. Reece Presley makes a convincing Tyrell, Richard’s chief thug in Act II, I wonder if Presley didn’t spend some time on the mean streets of New York before joining the company. Caroline Thurgood and Alex Benarzi deliver such chilling performances as Queen Margaret and King Edward, respectively, that I wondered why they didn’t have larger roles.

Richard III is a more ambitious undertaking than Romeo & Juliet. The story is complex, the language harder and the demands on the cast and crew are greater. Vagabond delivers in stride, with more elaborate costumes, more powerful sounds and much more polished effects than we’ve seen in the past.

The result is a play that hits more of the right notes, keeping the audience invested in the action. Because the play is so complex, drawing on the complicated political history of England, the story can be a bit difficult to follow at times. But LaPlante has an innovative solution to that problem. Before the show, and during intermission, he plans to distribute newspaper clippings that bring the audience up to speed and place the action in context. This is a good idea—by the end of Act I there had been so many shootings, beheadings, and garroting that I was a bit confused.

The death scenes might be the strongest part of Richard III. In the original text, only a handful of these deaths happen on stage, but LaPlante has chosen to move these gruesome scenes to the stage. The brutality of the murders hammers home the evil and twisted reality in which Richard lives and makes his eventual demise that much more satisfying. The deaths are well-acted and each one will shake the audience. After one particularly nasty double murder, I was surprised to hear the scene-change music come up and be especially joyous. It struck me as odd. Then it happened again. I’m not sure if this is intentional, maybe representing Richard’s emotion, or if it was simply poor music choice, but I felt it undercut the significance of the deaths significantly. =

The play’s grand finale is especially satisfying, with an eerie and nightmare scene and a clever—if brutal—mass culling of Richard’s supporters. Richard’s death is particularly gratifying. Fried manages to be heroic and despicable, which is no small feat.

Overall, Richard III is a marked improvement over Romeo & Juliet. The cast has grown more confident and the crew more professional and sophisticated. Given the level of improvement here, I eagerly anticipate the company’s grand finale, The Merchant of Venice, which they plan to run sometime in March. Until then, I encourage you to catch Richard III while you can—it’s a fun ride.

Richard III runs until Feb. 6. Tickets are $12 for students and seniors and $15 for adults and are available at Destinations, Novel Idea and at the door. For more information, go to vagabondtheatre.ca

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.