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Poor Richard

Theatre Memphis turns Shakespeare into a sci-fi leather fantasy.

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Perhaps I should make this clear on the front end: I did not hate Theatre Memphis' profoundly weird production of Richard III. Clearly, a lot of thought and hard work went into a show that, simply said, misses the mark. As a purely theatrical event, the show can be quite entertaining. But director Bo List — a formidable talent even on a bad day — has put his own artistic vision into competition with Shakespeare's by cutting the script into puzzle pieces and reassembling it in a way that doesn't always serve the story. The show can also devolve into a hot mess with acting styles that vary from naturalistic and nuanced to good old-fashioned Shakesperean declaiming. And then there's the silliness.

I thought I knew Richard III, but I walked away from Theatre Memphis' staging with more questions than answers. Questions like: What's up with all that reverb? And: Why are all the dudes wearing so much mascara? And: How much leather is too much leather? And: Chains? Really? You went there?

Was this supposed to be an edgy experiment? Or was it an intentionally campy S&M-inspired romp from the get-go? The tone was so heavy and yet the eyeliner and the PVC corsets were Vampire Lesbians of Sodom all the way.

Christopher McCollum's minimal environment is functional and, for what it is, quite effective. But Guy Lee Bailey's costumes, all in shades of black, blend modern pieces with Gothic touches in ways that call to mind mid-20th-century cult cinema, particularly Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and Scorpio Rising.

The story — as Shakespeare wrote it, not as it appears here — is fairly straightforward. Poor Richard, the ugly royal, can't seem to find his place in a boring time of peace, poetry, and public displays of affection, so he starts hacking, stabbing, slicing, and smothering his way to the throne. The play — in its natural condition — opens with Richard bemoaning "this glorious summer" of happiness and contentment. But this flirtatious, yawn-inducing England that he loathes is never seen or even suggested at Theatre Memphis. And as striking as McCollum's set may be, it's tempting to suggest that the cocktail lounges and manicured croquet lawns from last season's delightful Much Ado About Nothing would have spoken more to Richard's personal torment than the more blatantly ominous imagery. Sometimes, when hearts are black and hands are bloody, it's more effective to paint the portrait in pastels.

Could it be that all the bondage gear is supposed to be a metaphor? Even so, the bar vests, codpieces, and studded harnesses summon the unfortunate specter of Neil Simon's Richard III from his film The Goodbye Girl. You know, the one Paul Benedict's character describes as "the queen who wanted to be king"?

Greg Boller throws himself into the title role with an abandon that is intermittently thrilling. It's too bad the actor is only allowed to play Richard as the guy you don't want to stand by on the subway. He's never given a chance to show us Richard the charmer or Richard the seducer. Boller is at his best when he's in motion, stabbing someone, beating a corpse with his cane, or simply limping about the stage menacingly. When he's allowed to stand still, he gets whiny and pathetic in a way that's at odds with Shakespeare's cunning man of action.

List's show starts strong. An isolated figure sits motionless onstage, strapped to a chair with a black pillowcase over his head, while audience members filter in. Echo-drenched recordings play sounds of unspeakable deeds in dark, drippy towers. The play begins in earnest with Boller ripping off the hood, revealing veteran actor Bennett Wood, shining a white-hot spotlight into Wood's terrified eyes, and finally hacking the helpless gentleman to pieces. It might be awesome if it were how Richard III actually starts.

There is some very fine work here. Chuck Hodges is excellent as an imprisoned Duke of Clarence. Joshua Sellers and Kinon Keplinger provide the play's most humane moments as a pair of reluctant assassins. And I must admit, a lot of things look cool, even if they don't serve the story particularly well. It's especially unfortunate that none of scenes where Richard operates the spotlight are actually about the evil king's second, less well-known career as a follow-spot operator.

Through April 23rd

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