By Brian Sherrill, Staff Writer
The 2016 Actors From the London Stage (AFTLS) company staged two performances of Shakespeare’s Richard III October 28 and 29 at The Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. The hype surrounding the arrival of these talented professionals was certainly justified. Last Friday evening, the first of their St. Louis performances during their tour, the evening started off with a bit of confusion, but ended with sincere applause and an excitingly loud standing ovation.
The confusion was caused by the AFTLS’s unorthodox method of presentation. Their approach is outstandingly minimal in its set, stage, and quantity of actors – certainly in comparison to the magnitude that comes with any of Shakespeare’s plays. An appropriate simile would be to imagine a knight going up against a dragon with nothing but a toothpick for a sword and a paper towel for a shield.
The company is composed of only five actors to portray all 26 Shakespearian characters in the play. The stage had no extravagantly massive sets to tower over the actors and no directorial concept to take away from the strength of the text alone of Shakespeare’s play. It looked very much like an improv set; however, the performance was nothing but unconsidered.
The simplistic staging consisted of an assortment of props like scarves, hats, and sunglasses in order to distinguish between an actor’s switching between characters; white tape in the shape of a trapezoid on the stage; a couple of invisible ghostlike characters, and a nicely hocked loogie that impressively soared four feet across the stage, landing bullseye onto Richard, The Duke of Gloucester.
The play consisted of the AFTLS’s creative and carefully contrived theatre, constructed and rehearsed by only the five actors, the play’s words and theatrical humor and tension.
The shuffling between the characters was confusing at times. Sometimes an actor would have to change props four or five times in one scene. It was a bit awkward in that aspect, but, these professionals handled their idiosyncratic approach with perfection. When the awkwardness would seem to rise and noticeably heighten, the actors would break that tension and the third wall with some sort of hilariously nuanced joke.
For example, during the introduction of all 26 characters, the actors juggled their props over their shoulders and on their heads causing the awkwardness to rise, but towards the end of their introduction, with the shorter of the female actresses donning dark sunglasses, and announced in their deepest voices with their arms out like muscular henchmen, “Murder 1 – Murder 2.”
Queen Elizabeth, played by Paul O’Mahony, announced dramatically, with her hand extended out, for her ring to be kissed. Paul O’Mahony’s hand stayed in place, while he shuffled to another of character, while the Queen’s scarf was held up very ghost-like and his then kissed his own hand causing an uproar of laughter from the audience.
Although the act of one performer talking and pivoting and talking back to themselves between multiple characters was confusing at times, every other aspect of the play was remarkable. Richard III, played by the AFTLS was extremely unorthodox, creative, and impressive. The most stunning display of professional acting I have ever seen.