Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ gets modern reimagining in Berkeley production

Impact Theatre/Courtesy

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“I fear our happiness is at the highest,” Queen Elizabeth says, looking not very happy at all as she glances fearfully around the room. She clutches her baby — the successor to the throne — close, with a harrowed expression on her face.

In tradition with putting on a Shakespeare play every season, Impact Theatre has just began their run of “Richard III,” from Feb. 28 through April 5. It’s the same local company which put on “The Dragon Play” last fall, and is performed in the same grunge-y, underground space below La Val’s Pizza on Northside.

Sean Mirkovich stars as the titular character, who betrays, seduces and murders his way to the throne in this quintessential political drama. Mirkovich admirably tackles the challenging role of master manipulator and supervillain — he’s a slimy, scheming, smooth-talking rageaholic.

While the original text is unaltered, director Melissa Hillman has reimagined and updated the play through contemporary costumes and setting, which allows the plot to transcend its original era. The company has been marketing “Richard III” as a predecessor to popular TV shows such as “Scandal” and “House of Cards.”

Shakespeare in suits and ties could easily come across as gimmicky, but the slight anachronisms between all the contrasting costumes, music, set, props and weaponry give benefit to the unplaceable atmosphere.

“Melissa Hillman really makes an effort to make it accessible, by updating the setting so that the characters are ones we know, ones we can relate to,” said company member Miyaka Cochrane in an interview with The Daily Californian. “My character is clearly a hit man. They didn’t have those in Shakespeare’s time, but the audience understands that’s who I am. … By tying in these modern archetypes, we have a cultural reference. We understand the political times, how they mirror the ones of today.”

The rest of a cast, a diverse company of actors, adopts various lively characteristics and confident roles. Queen Elizabeth, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, carries herself so regally you feel like bowing to her at the end; the dynamic scenes between her and Richard III are particularly striking.

The show is a slow grind — clocking at around 2 hours and 40 minutes — but the steady build-up allows its crashing closure all the more satisfying. The success of such a long production may be in part due to the space in which it is performed: an intimate, black-box theater.

“Richard III” is staged primarily as impassioned dialogues punctuated by gunshots. To an audience member sitting in the room where characters fight and lie and shout at each other, the overall effect is much more exhaustive yet powerful. It feels as if you’ve been a part of the show: You’re let in on Richard’s secrets, and addressed as a member of the army that takes him down. So when the play ends ends, it ends, and you realize you’ve been holding your breath the whole time.

Being part of an engaged audience is a crucial aspect of the emotional response and enjoyment of “Richard III” — there’s a larger sense of community and heightened experience when the entire crowd laughs, groans and gasps. “We’ve had some wonderful audiences so far,” Cochrane said. “There are dark comedic undertones that I think have been playing well with the audience.”

Technical director and company member Jon Nagel cited that extra interest in seeing “Richard III” may come from the recent unearthing of the former king’s skeleton, which was found a few months ago buried underneath a parking lot in England. Coincidence? I think not. Perhaps it’s time for Berkeley students to go underground, to La Val’s Subterranean, and discover Richard III for themselves.

Shows run Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. until April 5. Ticket prices for students are $15 in advance and $20 at the door.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser [email protected].