Director Aimée Michel has taken complicity to a new level in Richard III (currently in repertory with Macbeth at The Shakespeare Festival at Tulane). We the audience are privy to Richard's hypocrisy and viciousness. And yet, at the crucial moment, when he constructs an elaborate pretense of piety in order to more effectively grab the crown, it is we the audience who are cast as "the people" and prodded to applaud him and to shout: "Long live the king!" Pretty creepy, in an amusing sort of way. All our doubts about our leaders, past and present, stir within us. After seeing this vivid production, conspiracy buffs are weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth, and saying "I told you so."
To emphasize parallels with current dilemmas, Michel sets the play in a vague, but familiar, modern time. Politicians wear business suits. Soldiers wear camouflage fatigues. Announcements are made over a TV news network projected onto large panels. One coolly efficient functionary is even hooked up with a headset cell phone for the entire play. Except for the glorious presence of verse and the notable absence of the "F" word, it's sort of like The War of the Roses via David Mamet. But maybe, Richard III is one of those classics that speaks particularly to our age.
In any case, Richard -- the consummate Machiavellian bad guy -- has an outrageous daring and an appalling sense of humor that comes close at times to the sensibilities of the "now" youth culture. Except, of course, that when he screams "off with his head," he means it. His maniacal sense of humor keeps the play enjoyably weird.
Gavin Mahlie creates a mesmerizing monster of a Richard, a man whose lethal ambitions draw in part on a well of venomous resentment about his physical deformity. Dishonest himself, he doesn't believe any human being has real stability, and he proves this to himself by bold villainies like wooing a woman whose husband he has killed -- and in the presence of the dead man's corpse, no less. Some of the other standouts in this exceptional cast include Clare Moncrief, Lara Grice, Danny Bowen, Daniel LaForce, Sean Patterson, Ron Gural and David Hoover.
There were two things I didn't understand. Why were the young princes put so offhandedly into the grisly Tower of London? And why does a modern tyrant desperately offer his kingdom for a horse?
Meanwhile, at Dixon Hall, right next door, a classic play of another sort got launched in fine style. Tulane Summer Lyric's first production this year was Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, often touted as the most popular operetta by the famous Victorian collaborators.
The town of Titipu and the complicated imbroglios of its inhabitants with the court of the most humane Mikado were joyfully suffered through by a melodious and comically talented troupe under the direction of Michael Howard. From beginning to end, there were little details, bits of business and added lines that caught you off guard and made you laugh. Though I must admit I didn't know why the stage hands seemed dressed as terrorists, until the person next to me explained they were in, in fact, ninjas.
In any case -- as the reader no doubt remembers -- The Mikado follows Nanki-Poo (Kyle Malone), the Mikado's son, who is in hiding, disguised as a wandering minstrel. He hopes to marry Yum-Yum (Angela Mannino), a beautiful schoolgirl. Unfortunately, Yum-Yum is betrothed to her guardian, Ko-Ko (Ricky Graham). To make matters worse, Nanki-Poo is pursued by his aristocratic fiancee, Katisha (Marjorie Leake).
Ko-Ko -- who was imprisoned for flirting and has become "through a curious chain of circumstances" the Lord High Executioner -- is in trouble with the Mikado because he hasn't executed anyone. Ko-Ko arranges a fake execution of the wandering minstrel to appease the Mikado. But when his majesty reveals Nanki-Poo was none other than his son, things look bleak for the Nanki-Poo-dians.
Kyle Malone was a charming Nanki-Poo, Angela Mannino a lovely Yum-Yum, Ricky Graham a hilarious Ko-Ko, Majorie Leake a formidable Katisha and David Stone a droll Mikado. They benefited from the fine performances of the other principals (Dean Bellais, Bryce Smith, Meredith Lee and Cate Reymond) and from a large, full-voiced chorus.
Here's also a tip of the hat to musical director C. Leonard Raybon, choreographer Ed Kresley, set designer Rick Paul and costume director Charlotte Lang.
This Mikado was a merry torrent of inspired nonsense and irresistible song.
Richard III returns for two closing performances at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. July 24. Visit www.neworleanshakespeare.com for more info.