Encore Michigan

Pigeon Creek delivers Richard III to our doorstep

Review April 10, 2019 Bridgette Redman

LANSING, Mich.–If you’ve been a faithful follower of Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company, you now know how the War of the Roses starts and ends and are ready for the final Game of Thrones season, the show that was heavily inspired from those British civil wars.

Pigeon Creek has been performing the plays making up the Henriad and is now performing “Richard III,” the play about the monarch who was determined to play the villain and does so with gusto and determination.

Long-time company member and consummate musician Scott Lange plays the titular role (and you don’t want to miss him rocking out to an acoustic cover of “Smooth Criminal” during intermission in a song that leaves us little doubt as to the fate of Richard’s queen Anne, who is definitely not OK) and he physically limps through a performance which he dominates in every other way.

Lange knows how to bring variety to a character who easily manipulates all those around him, even those who know he is a villain and hate him for it. The two scenes in which he woos for a wife leave little doubt how even a man that is outwardly and inwardly a horrible person can manage to win support and achieve his goals even from those who have most reason to hate him.

Times haven’t changed much.

Everyone else in the cast make frequent role changes, playing all the various lords, royals, murderers and common folk who become accessories to Richard’s evil rule.

It was a pleasure to see Lange and his wife Katherine Mayberry again, sparring on stage, much a they did in “Antony and Cleopatra,” though this time with characters who have no love between them. One of Mayberry’s many roles in this show is that of Queen Elizabeth, Richard’s sister-in-law. Grief is heavy on her even before the death of her husband and she knows that Richard is the cause of her current and future woes. It brings an electricity between them and Mayberry is especially compelling when Richard comes to ask her for a favor late in the play.

Aili Huber directs this production, and she makes clever use of banners to help the audience keep track of a complicated cast of characters. Each banner is emblazoned with the crest of the person it represents—Edward has a sun, Richard has a boar, etc. When each of the people represented by the banner are put to death, the banner is pulled from the back of the stage and given to the soon to be executed person (and yes, that nearly everyone dies is not a spoiler—not only is this Shakespeare and a history, but the statute of limitations has long run out on any result in the War of the Roses being a spoiler). The banners then return in a climactic scene toward the end.

The cast is filled with actors who have been part of the Pigeon Creek ensemble for years and are exceedingly comfortable with the style of performance that Pigeon Creek does. For they are a company with a unique personality and a very specific take on Shakespeare. It’s a production style that is intimate and immediate and invites the audience to engage with the stories being told.

First, if you are on time to a Pigeon Creek show, you are late and have missed out on much of the fun. This show comes with a live-action preview of their summer show and their curtain speeches are written to fit each show and are always worth watching.

Scott Lange is the musical director and is responsible for audiences leaving the theater humming songs that get stuck in their heads for days as if they’d attended a musical rather than a Shakespearean history. They make great use of modern and original songs that delve into themes or circumstances of the show and all of the ensemble finds some way to participate in the music making whether it is singing, beating on a box or shaking a rattle.

Because of extensive doubling and gender-blind casting, they manage to make use of a cast more diverse in age and gender than most Shakespearean productions. The shows are inherently theatrical. You’re not really meant to lose yourself or forget that you’re in a theater. Instead, you’re meant to appreciate the flexibility and fun of how these actors tell the story.

Richard III is a story of villainy and politics. It asks how a villain manages to achieve so much and wrest control from those who would rule well or who are seemingly destined to rule. It tells a story of a man who lies without ceasing and yet manages to get people to either believe him or to determine that his lies are acceptable. He continually finds henchmen who will be loyal to him for the favors that he gives, even as he continually betrays those loyal to him and they lose their jobs and heads for the slightest of offenses.

We’d like to look at a story like Richard III and say that Shakespeare merely exaggerated his villainy to curry favor with his own queen, that such a man could not prosper or exist off the stages of the playhouse.

Yet, Pigeon Creek did not have to do a single bit of modernizing or politicization to leave the audience feeling like this story has more relevancy than ever before.