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Performance Network presents a new vision of Shakespearean villainy

PNT's gender-fluid production of Richard III stars Carla Milarch in the title role supported by a brilliant cast.
PNT's gender-fluid production of Richard III stars Carla Milarch in the title role supported by a brilliant cast.
Sean Carter Photography

Richard III at PNT

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Imagine a post-apocalyptic world torn apart by warlords who battle for ultimate power and scheme to control the communications network that allows vital access to their essential mobile devices. Picture the most ruthlessly brilliant of these warlords as a man who started life as a female and has had to contend for power amongst his more charismatic siblings – all while fighting for them against a common mortal enemy – also blood relatives. Have him give voice to some of the most searing soliloquies in the English language. Do this, and you begin to understand the mesmerizing production of “Richard III” currently being staged at Performance Network Theatre. Brace yourselves for a bleak but ripping good story.

Carla Milarch is powerful as the evil Richard III at Performance Network Theatre
Sean Carter Photography

Directed by Julia Glander, this is a dystopian reimagining of Shakespeare’s history that culminates in the final battle of the War of the Roses. It is true to the scripted language (with minor tweakage) and tackles the expected themes of fate, politics, good and evil. But PNT’s “Richard III” adds a new nuance – ambiguous or switched gender roles – as just another dimension in the epic power struggle. Described as “gender-fluid,” this reimagined production of “Richard III” stars Associate Artistic Director Carla Milarch as the eponymous villain who climbs to power over the stacked up bodies of his brothers, nephews, cousins, and once loyal supporters. Milarch is terrific.

Instead of Richard’s traditional malformed back, with his trademark hump, he is represented as a transgender man. And though the soliloquy remains true to Shakespeare’s words, Milarch’s Richard finds new meaning when describing himself as “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.“ When you see it, it makes sense.

“The quest for power (the crown) really felt like a means of survival – a perfect setting, actually, for a villain to take advantage of a disheartened people. Make our villain a female who openly identifies as a male, and it opens up possibilities for a time period in which gender fluidity comes to the forefront. I am particularly excited to have Carla Milarch bring a new, outrageous, audacious, and humorous re-imagining to Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III,’” said Director, Julia Glander.

Other effective examples of gender-fluid casting include actors John Seibert and Alysia Kolascz. Siebert, as Queen Margaret, steals each scene she is in by giving us a feisty, tragic and sorrow-bent woman who has survived at the expense of her sanity. Ultimately, it is Seibert’s mad Margaret who is the only character to understand and voice the trajectory of truth – which comes as a curse on the house of York. Siebert also plays the obsequious and publicity-obsessed Lord Mayor to great comic effect. Alysia Kolascz plays both doomed Hastings and triumphant Richmond, which adds nuance to the whole sense of “winning” wars that ultimately leave families on both sides irreparably damaged.

Other characters were effectively cast in gender-matched roles per traditional productions – Terry Heck as the Duchess of York, Brian Sage as the Duke of Buckingham, Janet Haley as Queen Elizabeth and Logan Ricket as Catesby.

Another intriguing aspect of this production is that it works this gifted company through multiple roles – particularly those who get killed off early in the play and reemerge as someone else. Joanna Bronson plays both Lady Anne and Lord Novel. Drew Parker is the doomed Duke of Clarence but returns as Lord Stanley. Derek Ridge manages three male roles plus the androgynous Mistress Shore. Johnathon West is majestic as King Edward IV and downright creepy as Richard’s henchman. Jason Tomalia plays four roles, ranging from a comic murderer to the Archbishop of York. Justin Dietzel also plays multiple roles, ranging from a vile, bumbling assassin to the innocent young Prince of Wales. And 12-year-old Francisco Fiori plays both his younger brother, Richard, and a page to Richard III.

If you want, you can spend hours trying to fathom the Plantagenet family tree, and it might add to your enjoyment of this historical drama. But for most people, we recommend that you sit back, listen to the glorious language, and enjoy the epic battle between the good, the bad and the ugly as presented by Performance Network Theatre. There is enough seduction, treachery and murder to make your favorite HBO series pale in comparison.

This provocative production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” runs at Performance Network Theatre through June 1, 2014, with evening performances on Thursday evenings at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on limited Saturdays at 3 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available online or through the PNT box office by calling 734-663-0681. Prices range from $27 - $46, with discounts available for students, seniors, children under the age of 16, and members of the military. The theatre is located at 120 East Huron Street in downtown Ann Arbor.