Photo by Gary Norman
What makes a monster? This is the question Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble (PETE) attempts to ask in its world premiere of R3, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III from the viewpoint of its female characters. Under the reins of the decorated international director Gisela Cardenas, this reimagining of Richard’s journey through manipulation and murder to England’s throne unsettles the audience’s remembrance of the classic text in a sinister, mesmerizing way, playing up the macabre with a barren, almost dystopian set and unusual use of props (black umbrellas carried by women, small galoshes to symbolize children, unadorned tables, and multimedia). But ultimately it loses itself in the convoluted heft of the story.

When the audience files into Headwaters Theatre in North Portland, Richard (Jacob Coleman) is already on stage, slouched in a chair and watching a small, pixelated television. The screen broadcasts some DJ captivating the masses at the Electric Daisy Carnival or a similar mass rave. Almost too heavy handed, we get it immediately: one man can lead the many. Flinging bits of debris at the screen, Coleman’s Richard, played with a limp but not the humped back, is entranced by his own anger and hungry for power. He is mean and only getting meaner.

Into this setting of rage enter five women, their stiff, stern demeanors a stark contrast to Richard’s energetic, almost animal movement. Dressed in black with high collars and hoop skirts, the female actors—Rebecca Lingafelter, Paige McKinney, Cristi Miles, Shelley Virginia, and Amber Whitehall—trade off roles, alternating between the queens—Elizabeth, Margaret, Lady Anne—and other characters from the court, Richard’s family, and seeming representations of his psyche. There are so many characters, in fact, that the program has a map of the individuals and their relationships to help the audience keep track—and still I found myself getting lost.

The storyline of Richard III is challenging, and if you aren’t a Shakespeare buff or didn’t brush up on the plot before coming to R3, this production with its character-swapping actors will do little to make things clearer. I found myself focusing on the art design and lively acting, conceding that I couldn’t follow the twists and turns of the narrative’s trajectory the way it was being retold. And indeed, the minimalist, experimental aesthetics of PETE’s R3 contrast nicely with the elevated Shakespearean dialect and the complicated plot, but ultimately they don’t work to clarify it.

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