This weak piping time of peace.
As Krannert’s season of classics continues, I am beginning to understand what they mean with that heading. As in any student production, there was a lot of variability, but the leads Ann (Kalyn N. C. Rivers) and James (Julian Parker) held down the fort. The famous scene from both the Shakespearean source text and this appropriation–Richard wooing Lady Anne–was particularly enjoyable. Parker wields a wealth of raw talent and clearly has a bright future ahead. But at the season’s heart, rather than considering a canon, all the works so far are interested in meta-theatre–plays that consider the conditions of theatre. This is one of the two tired themes of Carlyle Brown’s The African Company Presents Richard III, despite the valiant attempt by a student-and-professional ensemble. The other somewhat tired theme African Company explores is that of social justice theatre.
In essence, the general critical understand of this play is that it makes the case that Shakespeare, an artist working in a developing world, makes more sense in the modern world when performed by non-white actors. And yet there is no success at the end: the company’s theatre is closed, the actors sent to jail, and the formation of the couple is deferred. For me, the question this production posed was what do we do with theatre that has a clear social justice agenda? I always struggle with Feminist, and Post-Colonial adaptations in that the social constructionism agenda feels significant but in practice, flatlines. This play just didn’t encourage alternative readings aside from the racially-inflected, nor did it suggest other avenues of complexity. A good play or film stays with me for a while, working its way into my day dreams or intermittent moments of undirected thought. This play didn’t, perhaps because it encouraged me to take away only one potential message.
This play is part of a current trend in Shakespeare adaptations that asks who gets to play Shakespeare, and who is entitled to rewrite Shakespeare. Krannert’s malleable Studio Theatre was turned into a partial stage with a traditional proscenium arch overhead–two performance spaces. Perhaps I am too much a product of my own cultural make-up, but a play considering its own conditions and milieu feels disjointed for a theatre-going public that has greatly shrunk and/or changed in the last century with the advent of the cinema and television. Spectatorship has changed in ways we are still struggling to articulate and pin down.
Like David Mamet’s A Life in the Theatre, sometimes these kinds of plays feel as if they are written only for an audience made up of fellow actors. My lack-luster response is likely due to a lack of interest in and knowledge of theories of social constructionism, such as gender and race studies. However, intertextuality is something I am interested in–those conversations between texts. The play suggests that it is interested in ideas concerning who has the right to perform Shakespeare. But here, the Bard functions more as a textual vessel or framework than actually considered by the play. This kind of artistic narcissism doesn’t encourage creative or exploratory thought–a quality one assumes is fundamental in constructing a season interested in what it means to be part of a canon. So, while well considered in execution, sadly African Company comes up dry.
- The Department of Theatre‘s production of The African Company Presents Richard IIIplays in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus until 13 February 2011.
- Note there is absolutely no late seating for this production (trust me, I’ve tried).
- You can also download the program for this production, here.