Propeller Heads, part 1

Austerely handsome, dressed in D&G black, Richard III wears his slight deformities like expensive, hard-won marks of distinction – at least, in the Propeller production that I was lucky enough to catch in one of only 3 US stops.

It’s a brilliant choice in a brilliant, ballsy, and perfect rendition of the play. Unlike Olivier’s bowl cut creep or Richard Dreyfuss’s mincing hunchback in The Goodbye Girl (subtle, that Neil Simon), this R3, played by the magnificent Richard Clothier, is repulsive on the inside, a rottenness to the core that makes you want to scrub with an abrasive cleanser as you wonder how you could have been seduced in the first place.

I’ve never read the play, and have Olivier issues so have never pounded through the movie. I’m glad. Under the dazzling, visionary direction of Edward Hall, Propeller shows that Shakespeare is like opera: You cannot hope to catch every sentence, let alone every word – and it doesn’t matter. Theory proved in an intermission check-in with the kid: “I have no idea what’s going on, but this is really cool.”

As this is a flawless production, I cannot praise every great thing. I will try to hit the high points.

1. The score is brilliant. Hall explains his approach (augmented with additional arrangements and original music by Jon Trenchard) beautifully in program notes (this education pack is also pretty swell). To paraphrase very briefly, he uses descending half tones frequently in order to, like Richard, both persuade and unsettle us. But that’s kind of an academic way to sum up what is a men’s a capella chorus of extraordinary and fluent beauty, swooping from a plangent Pie Jesu to a relatively calm Dies Irae, to mournful lullabys and raucous drinking songs, with the balls to transform rhymed couplets into a rap that could have been embarrassing and is, instead, chilling and kickass. Music weaves the scenes together seamlessly, alternately making your heart race and break.

2. Lighting. Damn. About 5 minutes in, Richard is lit up in majesty, while just behind him, one of the first characters to die slumps like a Christ in a Piéta and somehow that same light transforms his skin to wax. Ben Ormerod is the genius here, and designer Michael Pavelka provides him and the actors with a set of scaffolds that recall London bridge and…well, let me get to Pavelka in the next paragraph. The shadows, sinister and yet oddly tender, wrap this production in a fierce, delicate cocoon that prints on your brain like a Bergman movie.

3. OK, so yes, also design overall. There is blood, plenty, there are bodybags – Richard and his bride, the doomed Anne (Trenchard, a man of many talents), march over them to coronation. Hospital partitions and gowns point slyly to Richard’s surgical precision in slicing up his enemies. The two little boys are beautiful yet disturbing doll heads on coats that float on strings; they might be inspired by Taymor or Eastern traditions in general, but this is one of the most poignant use of puppets I’ve ever seen. And their assassin wears one of those horrid flesh-colored plastic masks and carries a belt full of toys along with his axe. But to try to describe this stuff is so inadequate. Every moment of the production is simply beautiful, sometimes in a horrible way but, just as often, like a prayer.

4. Actors. I won’t list them all because I wouldn’t be able to wrap up writing. But one thing must be said: Propeller is an all-male troupe, just as in Shakespeare’s day, and THIS is how women were done in Shakespeare’s time. (NOT like the Paltrow in that movie.) I’ve seen a couple, not many, performances where men played women like this. It is NOT drag. These are men who, just as Clothier embraces and lives Richard’s ugliness, embrace and live their characters’ salient qualities. I talked to the kid about this, and he said, “You know, it didn’t matter that they weren’t women playing women. I got it.”

(I saw my buddy Chuck LaFont play a woman in a great production of Cloud 9 in San Francisco, and he was even better than the great Everett Quinton and Charles Ludlam; you never once thought he was a woman, and yet you completely, profoundly understood the character. Gender wasn’t important; emotion was.)

In this play, these actors brought a visceral, rooted comprehension of mourning women to frightening life.

Once again, the kid got it. Dialogue excerpt:
“Wow, that was just how they did it in Shakespeare’s day.”
(me) “I thought it was so cool, because they were guys, but they totally got what the women were about.”
(kid) “Yeah, it wasn’t gay at all. Them being women didn’t really matter. Weird.”
(me to me: weird, and perfect)

Of course, getting it was hardly limited to mothers and wives. Every single person onstage riveted you when his job was to rivet, then gracefully, invisibly, passed the baton to the next riveter. In a stroke of genius doubling, the assassins also play the 2 little boys. Audience members, you have chosen to attend, and you must pay attention to these directorial decisions; like middle names, they mean something.

I am swooning. I have another show tomorrow night, and the kid, given the option, has accepted and will be there too.

This is so cool. How grateful I am for this.

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