In The Moment: Kimberly Gilbert Is King In ‘Bootleg Shakespeare, Richard III’

A fan boy's take on Gilbert as King Richard III

Once again, Taffety Punk Theatre Company has succeeded at challenging the theatrical status quo. This time, it was with a mesmerizing Bootleg Shakespeare Richard III. Under the open-eyed, “the past-is-not-prologue” direction of Marcus Kyd and a highly spirited cast of nearly three dozen, Richard III was reborn in a glorious manner. 

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.

The Bard, that paragon of white male playwrights and staple of the DMV theater scene, is long dead. But damn, Shakespeare is one marvelously malleable playwright for our times when in the right hands. And Taffety Punk is right on with its balanced, non-ideological gaze, text-sculpting talents and casting choices.

Central to the allure of Taffety Punk’s Bootleg Shakespeare Richard III was the luminous performance of Kimberly Gilbert as the Duke of Gloucester, later to be King Richard. Gilbert totally killed in a bravura portrayal of a scheming king with a grudge against the world and not one iota of apology for the horrific deeds done in his name. 

Gilbert was chilling and unnerving; putting a morally fluid spin on the raging creature that Shakespeare created and who lately has had a rebirth as his bones were not long ago unearthed in a parking lot. (A king who some too easily see as an early embodiment of the current occupant in the White House.) 

Let me go on with my fan-boy notes. The compelling Gilbert was verbally brazen and wantonly ruthless, presenting Richard as a deeply insecure individual. Gilbert laid bare Richard as out to bend the world to him. 

Gilbert’s spin on the raging creature that is King Richard was not one of missing bits and pieces, of a hunched back, of stiff braces and a crumpled appearance with visible scars. Gilbert was full of tics, gestures, squinting thinking eyes and constant motion rather than special effect. Gilbert embodied “And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

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.

The outer and inner wounds of King Richard, as Gilbert portrayed, were wounds of a different nature. Wounds that came to the fore with the timing of line delivery whether hurling abrasive, aggressive counter-punches or sounding just plain full of shit. As a petite in height actor, Gilbert was on the stage within a forest of taller trees usually looking up to them when presenting, a position that would be viewed as the submissive in a relationship. In Bootleg Richard III she is far from it. As either the Duke or later King Richard, Gilbert found a way to have others do what was demanded of them.

What was also visible was the difference that Gilbert made of characterizations of King Richard. In Act I, a character with total confidence trying to ascend the throne. Then in Act II utterly insecure, quick to take issue with others, while trying to keep the throne. It was revelatory.

The title role in Richard III has not been played by many female actors. Kimberly Gilbert and Taffety Punk changed that for our betterment. 

One more note about Gilbert’s portrayal wrapped in one staged magnificent moment late in Act II. I can only compare to the wanton kiss in The Godfather Part II that Godfather Al Pacino gave to his brother Fredo (John Cazelle), a kiss of passionate public outing, “I know it was you.’ In the case of Richard III, the line is this as Richard speaks to the mother of a princess he wants to bed, “Give her a kiss from me, her true love.” The King had just spoken some chilling words to the mother about impregnating the princess to wash away the many deaths engineered. Yikes. 

[Related: full review of Bootleg Richard III, by Sophia Howes]

For me, Bootleg Richard III was a rocket of a production. It provided me with plenty of moral outrage, righteous indignation, and gasps. I loved it and I was not alone. The diverse Folger audience gave the performance a well-earned standing ovation. As the audience filed out, they were in animated conversation with bright smiles. Truly a sign of a fine evening out with enlightening theater.

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

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

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.