Review: ‘Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III’ by Taffety Punk Theatre Company at the Folger Theatre

The actors arrive with only their lines prepared. The show goes on, ready or not, and a good time is had by all.

Taffety Punk’s Bootleg Shakespeare, a beloved DC tradition, is like attending a party with dozens of friends you never knew you had. The lines are long. The audience is enthusiastic. And the acting is often startlingly inspired.

For those who believe Shakespeare is old-fashioned and boring, let me point out: not this time! The actors who performed Richard III on Saturday, July 27 arrived at 10 am that morning with memorized lines, some props and costumes, and the willingness to walk a tightrope without a net. They had one 6-hour rehearsal with Director Marcus Kyd. Then, one performance, the same night at 8 pm.

Kimberly Gilbert as Richard III in Taffety Punk's production of 'Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III.' Photo by Glenn Ricci.
Kimberly Gilbert as Richard III in Taffety Punk’s production of ‘Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III.’ Photo by Glenn Ricci.

Richard III can be intimidating. It can seem like an endless series of family quarrels, in which some members 1) Suffer terrible injustices 2) Get murdered and 3) Appear to have the same name. This Richard is so full of laughter, strange twists of fate, and mysterious events that you are spellbound even when you are not quite sure what is going on.

This is the 13th Bootleg Shakespeare. The Bootleggers began the War of the Roses with Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 from 2016-2018. The actors continued to play the same characters as the trilogy developed. At the outset, there is a hilarious re-enactment of the aforesaid wars, including Joan of Arc, various English monarchs, and assorted malcontents. We are given audience participation cues; when to make the sound of trumpets (hard to explain) and when to tap our knees to indicate drums.

Then, we are treated to the superb Kimberly Gilbert as Richard III. As a female in a male role, she seems liberated in a way so many Richards are not. There are no rules for a woman playing Richard, and she doesn’t need any. From the moment she begins with “Now is the winter of our discontent” we are all in. Her Richard is believable when being spectacularly devious, engaging even when relentlessly cruel, and amusing when facing the frequent contradictions imposed by her actual gender. As her Richard progresses, he seems to be having a massive nervous breakdown. And yet he also comes across as your everyday terrifying psychopath, rather like Andrew Scott as Jim Moriarty in the BBC series Sherlock.

Esther Williamson is a complex Lady Anne. The scene in which she appears to accept Richard as a suitor is quite a challenge, given that he killed her husband and they are sharing the stage with her dead father-in-law, whom Richard also murdered. Rather than suggesting that she falls for Richard immediately, which is almost impossible, she gives us the impression that maybe, just maybe, she will offer him an opportunity to reform. By lowering the intensity of her feelings for him, she renders the scene almost believable.

Tonya Beckman, who has been playing Margaret of Anjou during the entire Henry VI series, enthralls the audience with her glamor, vicious humor, and hatred of everything and everyone she encounters. Dan Crane, as Edward IV, is particularly good at conveying his doubts that the warring factions he has gathered as he is dying will really come together and support each other.

Todd Scofield, James Beaman, and Tonya Beckman in Taffety Punk's production of 'Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III.' Photo by Glenn Ricci.
Todd Scofield, James Beaman, and Tonya Beckman in Taffety Punk’s production of ‘Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III.’ Photo by Glenn Ricci.

James Beaman is dapper and urbane as the Duke of Buckingham. Theo Black, as Earl Rivers, appears to have just returned from the Hamptons. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh strikes just the right note as Sir William Catesby, both scary and nonchalantly obliging. Paul Reisman is entertainingly clueless as William Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain. Todd Scofield gives a moving performance as the Duke of Clarence.

Erin Sloan’s Queen Elizabeth is perfectly cast, equipped with beauty-queen makeup and sash. She is especially fine in the difficult later scenes when she has lost her sons. The Princes in the Tower play together exceptionally well. Griffen DeLisle is a clever Prince Edward; the adorable Percy Kyd Bruneau is outstanding as Richard, Duke of York, the younger son. Jenna Berk as Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond is spirited and appealing, making Richmond far more interesting than he usually is.

And let’s not forget the murderers! Chris Marino as James Tyrrell appears to have just escaped from Woodstock. Teresa Spencer as the 1st Murderer and Jessica Lefkow as the 2nd Murderer are thuggish but droll in their own way.

Director Marcus Kyd has turned Richard III into a celebratory evening: a combination of theatre, rock concert, and sports event. There are Fights (Teresa Spencer); Lights (Chris Curtis) and a dizzying array of costumes. A couple of actors have bishop’s mitres purchased rather precariously on their heads. Margaret of Anjou sports a stylish “Resist” T-shirt and army pants.

Even the most talented actors can be inhibited by the weight of tradition when approaching Shakespeare. The Bootleggers are a glorious example of performers who let themselves go instead. This is a must-see DC event. If you missed it this time, well, there’s always next year.

Running Time: Approximately two and one-half hours, with one 20-minute intermission.

Taffety Punk Theatre Company presented Bootleg Shakespeare: Richard III, directed by Marcus Kyd, for one night only, July 27, 2019, at 8 pm at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE, Washington, DC.

The Players:
Lord Grey, Pursuivant J.J. Area
Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham James Beaman
Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI Tonya Beckman
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond Jenna Berk
Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, brother to Queen Elizabeth Theo Black
Keeper in the Tower; Sir John, a priest Katrina Clark
King Edward IV Dan Crane
Earl of Oxford Liz Daingerfield
Prince Edward, oldest son of Edward & Elizabeth Griffen DeLisle
Sir William Catesby Maboud Ebrahimzadeh
Lord Francis Lovell Briana Gibson Reeves
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III Kimberly Gilbert
John Morton, the Bishop of Ely Brit Herring
The Sheriff Marcus Kyd
Prince Richard, Duke of York, younger son of Edward & Elizabeth Percy Kyd Bruneau
Berkeley; 2nd Murderer; 3rd Messenger Jessica Lefkow
Sir Robert Brakenbury Katelyn Manfre
James Tyrrell Chris Marino
Marquess of Dorset, son of Elizabeth from previous marriage Chelsea Mayo
Sir James Blunt Katie Murphy
Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Edward & Elizabeth Annaliese Neaman
Sir Richard Ratcliffe David Pesta
William Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain Paul Reisman
George, Duke of Clarence; The Scrivener Todd Scofield
George, son of Stanley; Ghost of Edward, son of Henry VI Morgan Sendek
Queen Elizabeth Erin Sloan
Sir Thomas Vaughan Julia Smouse
Mayor of London; Tressel; 1st Murderer; 2nd Messenger Teresa Spencer
The Duke of Norfolk Ashley Strand
Lieutenant of the Tower of London; 1st Messenger Michael Dix Thomas
Lord Stanley, the Earl of Derby Sara Dabney Tisdale
Sir Christopher, a priest; Archbishop; Cardinal Julie Weir
Lady Anne; The Ghost of Henry VI Esther Williamson

Direction and Design
Director Marcus Kyd
Lights Chris Curtis
Fights Teresa Spencer

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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.