Review: ‘Richard iii’ at Synetic Theater

In this, the 14th installment in their “Wordless Shakespeare” series, Synetic Theater brings us a Richard who is part man, part machine.

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

–William Gibson, author of Neuromancer.

Synetic Theater, a beloved DC-area institution, has come up with a luxuriantly detailed Richard iii, rightly introduced as “Richard 3.0.” It is a cutting-edge achievement.

The cast of Synetic Theater's production of 'Richard iii.' Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
The cast of Synetic Theater’s production of ‘Richard iii.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

The production is described as “cyberpunk”–which began as a genre of science fiction. The best-known cyberpunk novel is William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), about a reckless hacker who comes up against a powerful artificial intelligence. Movies like The Matrix (1999) and Blade Runner (1982) are examples of cyberpunk visual style. Now there are cyberpunk video games, movies, comics, television, art, and music. Cyberpunk refers to cyberspace as well as technological adjustments to the body. But it is also an attitude; a cyberpunk has style; a cyberpunk questions authority; cyberpunks tend to be an antihero, a criminal, a visionary.

Richard III, the king we love to hate, fits in perfectly with the cyberpunk ethos. He is morally repulsive yet strangely appealing. In this 14th installment in their “Wordless Shakespeare” series, Synetic brings us a Richard (Alex Mills) who is part man, part machine. After being wounded in battle, Richard is re-constructed, relying almost completely on technology. This artificial intelligence robs him of his humanity, enabling him to kill and kill and kill again with no sign of regret or remorse.

Synetic has discovered a major new cyberpunk author: William Shakespeare!

Director and Founding Artistic Director Paata Tsikurishvili and Founding Associate Artistic Director and Choreographer and Resident Composer Konstantine Lortkipanidze are to be congratulated, along with the rest of the creative team, for their originality and dynamism. This ambitious production succeeds on every level and leaves us struggling to understand what has just occurred.

At first, there is a battle. Dark figures in masks carrying lightsabers storm the aisles and the stage itself. The soldiers brandish the sabers like guns; long, thin columns of red and green, which flicker around us. Their movements are jerky, their costumes partially metallic. Perhaps, it seems, they are not human beings but cyborgs. The sound (Sound Designer is Thomas Sowers) varies from thrilling to vaguely frightening. The predominant colors are red, silver, and black. Richard is fighting along with his brothers Edward (Philip Fletcher) and Clarence (Thomas Beheler).

Alex Mills as Richard in Synetic Theater's production of 'Richard iii.' Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Alex Mills as Richard in Synetic Theater’s production of ‘Richard iii.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Next, we see Richard sitting in—is it a throne or a wheelchair? He is being operated on by two of his minions, Tyrell (Ana Tsikurishvili) and Ratcliffe (Scean Aaron). He will become, as Director Tsikurishvili describes, “a terrifyingly surreal synergy of the organic and the synthetic.” Mills’ transformation is remarkable; his head movements, need to control everything he sees, and spasmodic physicality perfectly represent the suffering (for despite the horror of who he is, Richard IS suffering) of this impossible being.

Frankenstein, of course, comes to mind. It is worth noting how Richard’s famous lines:

“And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Compare to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “[I]f I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

There are dreamlike projections: Richard declaring “Now is the winter of our discontent,” Clarence drowning in a butt of malmsey, the floating heads of various characters. Scenic & Multimedia Designer Tennessee Dixon and Video Producer & Editor Scott Brown have contributed a great deal to the visual excitement of the production.

The choreography, by Irina Tsikurishvili, is exquisite. In the most famous scene in the play, Richard woos Lady Anne over the corpse of her father-in-law (here, her husband). Lady Anne is played by Maryam Najafzada, a classically trained dancer from Baku, Azerbaijan. She lies on top of the see-through coffin, and her dance with Richard is seductive and mesmerizing. Najafzada’s Lady Anne stays enraptured with her new husband Richard a lot longer than she does in Shakespeare’s original. She lives longer too, although her death is worse. Much worse.

Alex Mills as Richard and Maryam Najafzada as Lady Anne in Synetic Theater's production of 'Richard iii.' Photo by Brittany Diliberto.
Alex Mills as Richard and Maryam Najafzada as Lady Anne in Synetic Theater’s production of ‘Richard iii.’ Photo by Brittany Diliberto.

Richard’s chief antagonist, Margaret of Anjou, is missing here, so Queen Elizabeth becomes the strong woman who can stand up to Richard. Irina Tsikurishvili’s Queen Elizabeth has some especially fine scenes with her daughter, the Princess Elizabeth (Nutsa Tediashvili). The two women assert their power by visiting a nightmare on Richard–a parade of his victims who appear to torment him.

Richard attempts to distract the Princes with screens which look like iPads. The Younger Prince (Aaron Kan) teases his older brother (Tim Proudkii). Buckingham (Matt R. Stover) and Richmond (Jordan Clark Halsey) meet their vastly different destinies with equal confidence and skill.

The costumes (Costume Designer is Erik Teague) are vividly imaginative, and the makeup equally so. Lighting Designer Brian S. Allard has devised strikingly lovely beams of light which hover over the actors.

The adaptation is by Nathan Weinberger, and there are many changes from the original plot. But this does not matter.

Richard iii, like cyberpunk, astonishes. Don’t miss it.

[Related: David Siegel contemplates ‘Richard iii’ as a potent theatrical experience for an anxious age]

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.

Richard iii plays through June 16, 2019, at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St. in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.

Anne Flowers, Assistant Director; Phil Charlwood, Technical Director; Nicki Franklin, Assistant Lighting Designer

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.