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Feature: Richard III — Hell on wheels


by Jerome Weeks 11 Apr 2008

l to r: Rene Moreno and Christine Vela in Richard III. Photo by Matt Mrozek ______________________________________________ Richard Crookback through the years: John Barrymore’s film version from 1929’s Show of Shows. Richard III as Bela Lugosi or John Carradine, a creepy, horror-movie monster. Laurence Olivier’s “Winter of our discontent” solioquy from his 1955 film version. Olivier reportedly […]

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Kitchen Dog’s Richard III. Rene Moreno as Richard, Christine Vela as Queen Margaret, photo by Matt Mrozek

l to r: Rene Moreno and Christine Vela in Richard III. Photo by Matt Mrozek

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Richard Crookback through the years:

  • John Barrymore’s film version from 1929’s Show of Shows. Richard III as Bela Lugosi or John Carradine, a creepy, horror-movie monster.
  • Laurence Olivier’s “Winter of our discontent” solioquy from his 1955 film version. Olivier reportedly modeled his performance on infamous theater producer Jed Harris.
  • Antony Sher’s Year of the King, his published diary and sketchbook recording his award-winning Royal Shakespeare Company performance in 1984. He developed his ruthless Richard-on-crutches after months of studying psychopaths and the disabled.
  • Ian McKellen’s opening from his high-style, 1995 film version. Richard III as Sir Oswald Mosley, the British fascist.
  • Jonathan Slinger’s acclaimed performance from last year’s RSC production. Richard III as Roy Cohn.
  • To hear the on-air feature:

  • Kitchen Dog Theater

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Announcer: Dallas’ Kitchen Dog Theater is presenting William Shakespeare’s Richard III – but with a Richard unlike any other. KERA’s Jerome Weeks has more.

Actor Rene Moreno plays the king in the current Kitchen Dog Theater adaptation of Richard III – and brings an unusual “quality” to the part: He has been in a wheelchair since 1991 when a five-story fall cost him the use of his legs.

Ian Leson, who directed the production, knew he wanted Moreno to play the evil Richard. But he worried about offending the actor. Richard is a great role. But he’s also one of Shakespeare’s only deformed characters. He’s an infamous hunchback. In the play, he’s called a “lump of foul deformity.”

But, Moreno says —

Moreno: Unbeknownst to Ian, whenever anybody asked me whether there was a role I wanted to do, and especially after my accident, it was kind of a secret to myself that I would actually want to do Richard III. I think the wheelchair made perfect sense.   

Since 1993, Moreno has been a rarity – a disabled performer who has succeeded in working onstage. In most cases, his wheelchair hasn’t mattered in his roles – other than the set needing a few ramps.

But in Richard III, the tyrant’s deformities are reviled as marks of evil. And Richard himself exults in them, boasting that if he’s too ugly to be a lover, he’ll be a villain.

The idea of turning these same deformities into physical disabilities began with Antony Sher’s celebrated 1984 Royal Shakespeare performance. Sher used crutches tied to his arms. In the play, Richard is called a bottled spider, and the crutches made him look like one. But they weren’t just a grotesque image. The key to Richard, Sher wrote, isn’t evil; it’s his pain, his bitterness over his condition.

At Kitchen Dog, director Leson agrees that deformities or handicaps hardly explain why anyone would murder his way to power.

Leson: It just didn’t connect for me. He wants to raise hell as a result of that? I just didn’t understand. He seemed bored. I’m bored therefore I’ll do this. And I think there’s a lot to Rene bringing to the table every day what he deals with as a man in a wheelchair and what that must do over time. And I think there’s a point where Richard says, enough is enough.

What Richard III — and Rene — deal with are condescension and barriers. In Leson’s adaptation, the other nobles are all squabbling, partying Eurotrash who disdain Richard. He may be smarter and harder-working, but he’s still ignored.

Rehearsing all this with his fellow actors has been painful, says Moreno

Moreno: One particular time I lost it and went off. I realized that I was trying very passionately to explain to them what sometimes my life is like moving in the world in the chair – and I realized that’s exactly what’s going on with Richard.

A hurt, resentful Richard isn’t necessarily sympathetic, Moreno believes. Just  more human. In the end, this Richard III gives us a handicapped man as a cold-blooded killer; it also gives us a handicapped man who can do just about anything – seize the throne or, as in this scene, seduce the widow of a man he murdered.

Richard: Was ever woman in this humor wooed?
Was ever woman in this humor won?
What? I that kill’d her husband and his father,
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes …
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing?
Ha!

The Kitchen Dog Theater’s Richard III runs through May 3. This is Jerome Weeks for KERA.

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  • Gail Sachson

    I, as the rest of the audience, thoroughly enjoyed and still think about KITCHEN DOG’S RICHARD III days later. We relive and relish the experience by discussing the timeless topics it presents… Are women weak? … Why are there followers of the deranged, disheartened and evil? …Is the outsider often a “powder keg”, on the verge of exploding ? Has politics always been a haven for corruption?
    But I must thank the KERA blog for enriching my theater experience even more, by providing
    the links to the videos of the many adaptations of RICHARD III…How wonderful to be able to view the characters as portrayed by other great stars and envisioned by other esteemed directors. It stirs us to imagine how we would present Richard. How would we choose to give evidence of our physical deformity? Would we..well.. why not just bring a group to see the show and arrange a TALK BACK after and do just that!

  • Thanks for the response. I was thinking about what kind of online material I could link to for Richard III, and initially I was concerned that it might seem unfair or even belittling to showcase the performances of Olivier and McKellen along with Kitchen Dog’s — as if to say, THIS is how it’s supposed to be done, boys — when, after all, Olivier and McKellen enjoy the many perks of cinema production, including beneficient lighting, makeup and editing. But after discovering the clip of Jonathan Slinger’s remarkable stage performance, the differences among all of these Richards seemed especially striking and fertile. Antony Sher, in his book about his experience playing Richard, “Year of the King,” commented for the 20th anniversary edition on how strange it now seemed to him that he had once been utterly overwhelmed by Olivier’s performance. At the time (1984), it seemed to him as if nothing more significant could be done with the role. Which, of course, isn’t true. And that’s what struck me about Slinger’s memorable performance — I’d never seen a Richard like it. The play itself is actually pretty simple — a Marlowe-style world-beater murders his way to the top — yet this aggressive villian could be played in such rewardingly different ways.

    FYI, I would have also included a clip from Al Pacino’s notable, cinematic reflection on the role, Looking for Richard, but the videos I could find online never showed Pacino (or anyone else) really taking on the role for a full scene or speech. They’re mostly of Pacino (or others) talking ABOUT Richard. Didn’t fit.

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