Few production attempts are more risky and more ambitious than taking William Shakespeare’s 16th-century verse and setting it in a more modern time. Baz Lurhmann’s 1996 “Romeo and Juliet” and Joss Whedon’s more recent “Much Ado About Nothing” have been examples of arguably successful attempts.
But those were big cinematic productions. How can a small theater, where Shakespeare’s words are more at home, make it work?
For the answer, check out the Queens Players’ production of “Richard III,” directed by Alberto Bonilla, at the The Secret Theater in Long Island City, which takes Shakespeare’s historic play set in the 1480s and moves it 500 years forward to the heart of London’s punk rock scene.
The play is based on the 15th-century War of the Roses in England, when the Lancasters and Yorks, two branches of the same family, fought for the crown.
The York King Edward IV died in 1483, leaving the throne to his 12-year-old son, whose odious uncle, Richard, became King Richard III after disinheriting his nephew by arguing that his mother used witchcraft to seduce the king. The boy was never seen again, presumably killed by his uncle.
Richard was killed in battle by Lancaster-ally Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who married Richard’s niece and was the father of the infamous Henry VIII and grandfather of the iconic Elizabeth I, who was queen when Shakespeare lived.
The Queens Players’ production does a superb job making us believe Richard III could have ruled in the era of punk.
Speaking in Cockney accents, the cast wears clothing of that era: tight leather, torn clothes held together with safety pins and fishnet stockings. The garb also advertised the personalities Shakespeare’s words give the player. The lush, sarcastic Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, portrayed by Sandra Karas, delivers her lines in tight leather while taking shots from a flask. Brittany Brook dons heavy goth makeup and deep black attire as Richard’s downtrodden wife, Lady Anne. The cunning Duke of Buckingham, played by Ralph Petrarca, hides behind a pair of sunglasses. The kooky Hastings, played by Eric Orman, wears a fedora and a ragged shirt.
The audience connection begins before you even walk into the door. Patrons are greeted by the two unnamed murderers, minor characters in the play who are reborn as London police, or bobbies as they’re called. The duo, played by Samantha Maurice and Benjamin Russell, provide moments of comic relief at signature scenes during the play. Supporting characters, who are part of the band that plays in between acts and take on the roles of Richard’s royal servants, interact with the audience, sometimes awkwardly. Ticket holders are welcomed in by the character Brackenbury.
Spectators get the experience of a 1980s punk pub. Beer and snacks are sold before the show and at intermission. The Lancasters and the Yorks are advertised as rival bands. The Union Jack is used extensively in the decor.
Richard is played eloquently by Richard Mazda, who transformed himself into a believable tyrant from the very moment he recited the famous opening words, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”
But Mazda’s exquisite performance did not stand out alone. Deanna Gibson’s emotionally raw Queen Elizabeth Wydville tugged at the heart as she faced the burden of losing all the men she loved. But she also portrayed a brave and unflinching woman who did not fear her tyrannical brother-in-law despite what he allegedly did to her children. Her courage is especially notable in the scene where she scoffs at Richard’s proposal to marry her daughter — who later marries Henry Tudor.
Perhaps the most unique twist comes at the end of the play, when Richard, just before heading off to his doom in battle, is visited by the ghosts of those he killed. The spirits’ poetic prose written by Shakespeare is intertwined into the punk rock sound that brings the three-hour play to a thrilling crescendo, despite what in reality is a rather anticlimactic ending.
It is not easy to make 15th-century verse work in a 20th-century setting. It takes a special type of creativity and courage to take a risk that can easily go awry.
Bonilla’s “Richard III” could have very easily gone off the rails, but this production successfully mixes two very distinct periods in English history and makes you believe they were almost meant to be together. Shakespeare has never seemed more timeless.