- Greggory Moore
Elysium Conservatory Theatre has a good thing going. Under the redoubtable guidance of Aaron Ganz, their dramatic smorgasbords of movement, music and lighting overflow with energy, immersing the audience in the action and taking full advantage of the beautiful multi-room performance space they are blessed to occupy. I’ve liked everything they’ve done, and because of the obvious amount of work and thought that goes into each show, I want to like everything they do.
Unfortunately, with Richard III the pieces don’t come together. Ganz’s conception seems adrift in a limbo between a traditionalist take on Shakespeare and the idiosyncratic Elysium treatment they gave Romeo & Juliet exactly one year ago, with too little of either to create a successful whole.
Granted, even the most well executed of conceptions was going to be hard-pressed to make me love Richard III, a convoluted and implausible play even by Shakespearean standards (which is saying something) and nowhere near one of the Bard’s best. But one of the primary problems with this production is that it’s flat-out confusing. Although I don’t know Richard III like I know Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet, I’ve seen it at least three times, yet this time around I had no idea what was going on. Two contributing factors are the costuming and casting.
Ganz has gone minimal, putting everyone in black, with minor distinguishing details (armbands, streaks of makeup) that are more about style than helping us keep things straight. On top of that, almost all of the actors play multiple roles, usually without altering their costumes at all. Add to the mix women playing both male and female roles in a play where several characters go by multiple names and are part of an incredibly tangled web of relationships—plus, they sometimes come back as ghosts—and I watched several scenes play out without knowing who was who or how they fit into the plot. (And remember, I’ve reviewed this play before.)
On top of all of this, as often as not I could not make out what anybody was saying. Of the several rooms in the Elysium theatre complex, Richard III is staged in the biggest, and that may have been a miscalculation. It’s a wonderful, cavernous, cement space. It makes for beautiful echoes, but when you’re trying to follow Shakespeare’s rapid-fire dialog—especially in the play where he most violates the “show, don’t tell” dictum—those echoes work against you.
But that didn’t have to be as big of a problem as it is. It’s a given that, unless you’ve really studied the Shakespeare play you’re seeing, you’re not going to understand all of the dialog anyway. But the best Shakespeare provides sufficient context (via acting, blocking, set design, etc.) for the passably literate layperson to follow along without following every word. Unfortunately, we aren’t given much context. For such a kinetic troupe, Elysium’s Richard III feels pretty static, with lots of exchanges between characters standing stock still and far apart, drawing our attention to the empty space when we should notice only the characters. What movement we get mostly veers between gratuitous and abstract, neither of which really helps us keep track of the action.
As for the acting, a lot of the cast’s energy (Elysium always, always brings the energy) feels misspent. There’s probably too much histrionics and not enough modulation in delivery. That, along with too little variance in the pacing, leaves both scene arcs and the overall dramatic arc feeling like flat lines.
There are a few highlights. The group acapellas are gorgeous and haunting, and there much of lighting design is beautiful, helping give Clarence’s death—clearly one of the show’s best scenes—a poetic edge. At least I think it was Clarence’s death. Like I said, I was often lost, and Ganz’s adaptation of the script—including infusions from Richard II and Henry V—didn’t help me find my way.
Unlike with everything else I’ve seen by Elysium, this time I neither understood nor related to what they’re going for. So maybe it’s me. All I can say is that if you see Richard III and don’t like it, don’t give up on Elysium Conservatory Theatre. I’ve never enjoyed Romeo & Juliet as much as I did theirs, and their Three Sisters was the best Chekhov I’ve seen. Ganz and company have proven they can do great work. Maybe they just can’t win ‘em all.
More Info on Richard III:
Time: Thurs-Sat 8pm; Sun 7pm through April 29
Cost: $18–$25 •
Details: (424) 535-7333, fearlessartists.org
Venue: Elysium Conservatory Theatre, 729 S Palos Verdes St., San Pedro