- Richard IIIdir. by Paata Tsikurishvili
Synetic Theater is best known in the Washington, DC theater scene and elsewhere for its "wordless" Shakespeare adaptations, Richard IIIbeing the fourteenth in its eighteen-year history. While the company produces plays by other classic authors in both "wordless" and more traditional productions, the signature element of every performance is the agility and remarkable physical skill of its self-termed "theatrical athletes." Having seen quite a few Synetic shows over the last two years, I was curious to see how a play like Richard III, with a famously disabled body at its center, might be translated onto the bodies of these hyper-capable performers. With a tense, throbbing electronic soundtrack and costumes that wouldn't be out of place in a Marvel or Star Trek movie, Synetic's adaptation transplanted this story of medieval kingship and lust for power into a frightening, postmodern "cyberpunk" landscape.
Knowing that Synetic as a company focuses on the hyper-capable body, I was not surprised that it took a new approach to portraying Richard's deformity. For centuries, actors have struggled with the theatrical problem of how to embody this character, whose movement is seemingly impaired but who "bustles" around the stage incessantly. Instead of presenting the famous crookback king as a man disabled from birth, Synetic's director Paata Tsikurishvili wanted to provide a more acceptable modern explanation for the character's murderous motivations. In his director's note, Tsikurishvili wrote that his production had replaced Richard's deformities "with another kind of physical defect—an almost complete mechanical reconstruction of Richard's physical body after he is wounded in battle." Alex Mills, a regular performer on Synetic's stage, brought this parthuman, part-machine hybrid to life. His youth and spry physique gave this portrayal of Richard an indefatigable energy. The "reconstruction" of [End Page 565]Richard's body here, however, did not physically encumber him in any way, but instead gave him more power and ability. He bounded around the stage with reckless abandon, his body at times seeming to be actively working against his own will. He also had absolute control over his two cyborg henchmen (Tyrell and Ratcliffe) and the many screens that surrounded him. The demonization of technology and bodily reconstruction here had unsettling implications given that actual disabled people have benefited greatly from prosthetic and assistive technology. Rather than having his twisted interior expressed by an outward manifestation of evil (according to early modern ideas of congenital disability), here was a man whose evil mechanized body struggles against his internal good nature.
Most productions of Richard IIIhave Richard crowned by the end of the first half and leave the second half for his descent and defeat. In a smooth intermission-less 110 minutes, this production spent most of its time on Richard's ascent to the throne. Apart from the significant change in the depiction of Richard's body, the adaptation also made several plot adjustments for simplicity's sake. Lady Anne was married to the dead King (left unnamed), and Princess Elizabeth, who appeared as an active character in this version, was engaged to Richmond from the beginning. Margaret and the Duchess of York were cut, though Margaret's words cursing Richard were played as a kind of voiceover while Richard transformed into his new cyborg form at the beginning of the play. While Tsikurishvili described the digital technology that the company employed as "a new storytelling language," these "new" methods ironically actually enabled the company to use more of the "old" Shakespearean text. Unlike their...