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Shakespeare goes steampunk

Richard III, in the rough

A local production of the epic play is moving in more ways than one

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Avital Sykora as Queen Elizabeth and Josh Bloomberg as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Avital Sykora as Queen Elizabeth and Josh Bloomberg as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)

He was King of England for only two years, but Richard III, a discontented, amoral monarch who rose to power through Machiavellian scheming, was influential and interesting enough to become the subject of William Shakespeare’s historical play, the second-longest in the playwright’s canon.

Now this anti-hero has come to Jerusalem as the protagonist in this summer’s production by Theater in the Rough, a community theater group celebrating its fourth year of presenting Shakespeare’s works out of doors. Held on the lawns of Bloomfield Garden, the 110-minute production is performed entirely outside, with several scene changes that require the audience to shift positions along with the cast in what amounts to an unusually dynamic stage experience.

For the most part, the actors, directors and audience are accustomed to the moves inherent in a Theater in the Rough production. What’s significantly different this year is choice of play, commented Natan Skop, 23, the show’s producer.

“We knew that ‘Richard III: in motion’ was really much bigger than anything we’d taken on in the past,” said Skop. The company has produced “Twelfth Night,”  “Romeo and Juliet” and “Much Ado About Nothing”, all in motion. “It’s a longer play and it’s written as an epic. All the language in the play is foreshadowing and backshadowing.”

Josh Bloomberg plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and is also the assistant director (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Josh Bloomberg plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and is also the assistant director (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)

There was also the fact that the play is written around one character, the eternal bad boy, King Richard III, but performed by an ensemble theater troupe that is constantly exploring the look, feel and sound of an acting group. How, wondered Skop and his team, would they create a play that didn’t offer all that much stage time or lines for the other actors?

With creativity, as it turns out. Skop and the director, Beth Steinberg (who happens to be his mother, and this reporter’s sister), first thought about what the actors could be doing when they’re offstage, wondering whether they had to be completely silent, or perhaps could be humming a tune or even muttering to themselves.

“You have to see if there’s a reason for a character to be silent, see if you can find an impulse,” offered Skop, a recent graduate of a prestigious monthlong training program at the Lenox, Massachusetts Shakespeare & Company. “Maybe the character is disinterested or timid. You want to give the actors the emotional experience to embody the text at a level where they’re physically experiencing it, and being open and vulnerable enough that the audience can experience it as well.”

The other challenge was the overall length of the play and its cast of 62 characters, a potential major obstacle for a relatively small local theater group. Again, ingenuity reigned. After cutting the play significantly, Skop and his father, Ira Skop (who plays Hastings, Lord Chamberlain), a professional tech-type, wrote a computer program that counted the number of lines per character so they would know the size of each part when casting the play.

In order to best utilize the ensemble, most of the actors are playing two roles, while some are playing three and even four. The actor playing Richard III, Josh Bloomberg, is also the assistant director, which created its own set of logistical challenges.

Most of the actors are playing two, three, even four roles for this lengthy ensemble piece: Avital Sykora as Queen Elizabeth, Simon Montagu as King Edward IV, Itai Leigh as Sir Grey, Chanel Lallouz as Young Elizabeth, Tzivya Brickel as Lord Rivers (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Most of the actors are playing two, three, even four roles for this lengthy ensemble piece: Avital Sykora as Queen Elizabeth, Simon Montagu as King Edward IV, Itai Leigh as Sir Grey, Chanel Lallouz as Young Elizabeth, Tzivya Brickel as Lord Rivers (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)

Finally, the two Skops figured out the length of the play according to each actor’s line count, and the average time it takes an actor to say his or her lines, something Skop learned to calculate during his workshop experience. They ran that algorithm through “Richard III” and calculated that they needed roughly the same number of lines as last year’s play (“Much Ado About Nothing”), which meant the show would run an hour and fifty minutes. Which it does.

That’s impressively brief for an epic historical play about one of England’s most-feared monarchs.

Those accomplishments were all milestones for Skop and the rest of the Theater in the Rough team.

In addition to hiring larger technical staffs this summer, rather than doing much of the behind-the-scenes work themselves, they also hired local designer Bayla Lewis to create their costumes.

That’s added another level of intrigue to the play, as Lewis set out to create Steampunk costumes, a style that blends pseudo-Victorian dress with art nouveau and mechanical touches, inspired by a sub-genre of science fiction that features steam-powered machinery and features.

Working within the company’s limited budget, Lewis scavenged garbage bins and sidewalk heaps, gathering lengths of metal sink hose, piles of toilet paper rolls and bags of empty plastic bottles to create the finery worn by the king’s retinue.

Note the gears on King Richard's crown and the sink drains on the Duke of Clarence; Gilad Petranker as the Duke of Clarence, Simon Montagu as King Edward IV, Josh Bloomberg as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Note the gears on King Richard’s crown and the sink drains on the Duke of Clarence; Gilad Petranker as the Duke of Clarence, Simon Montagu as King Edward IV, Josh Bloomberg as Richard, Duke of Gloucester (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)

“They wanted a new spin and I had been looking at Steampunk,” said Lewis, a painter who has been designing children’s and adult clothing since moving to Israel nine years ago. “No one ever has any money and that’s okay, it’s actually great because it’s just so stimulating.”

Lewis did walk into one or two plumbing stores before she realized she could find everything she needed on the street. Armed with some 50 cans of bronze spray paint, she’s been spraying her pile of recycling items into a astonishing variety of props and pieces.

Her favorite? Probably Richard’s leg brace, a wondrous engineering marvel built out of an old metal toilet paper holder and the plastic gears of one of her son’s broken toys.

“I said wouldn’t it be great if it could move; it’s supposed to look like it works,” she said. “I wanted it to look like it’s a piece of him.”

There are also top hats, some impossibly tiny and others imposingly large, created from scraps of cardboard, lace and velvet, or others that were initially plastic party hats, now sprayed and festooned with bottle caps, ancient printer plugs and more hose, all looking faintly Victorian and somehow, Shakespearean.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Sara Covey as Lady Anne (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)
Richard, Duke of Gloucester and Sara Covey as Lady Anne (photo credit: Yitz Woolf)

“Each piece had its ‘Aha’ moment,” recalled Lewis.

After weeks of rehearsals, the Theater in the Rough ensemble will be costumed in Steampunk for nine shows in the next three weeks from Monday night, August 5.

“It’s all gained a lot of momentum. Now we have three weeks of this, and we’re excited to see how it’s going to snowball,” said Skop. “I think we’re getting there, but we always have more to go, and we’re really trying to reach the Hebrew-speaking audience this year.”

But no, it’s not in Hebrew. Just English. Shakespearean English.

“Richard III: in motion,” free and out-of-doors, Bloomfield Garden, behind the King David Hotel. August 5, 8, 11, 12, 14, 18, 19, 21, 22 at 5:30 p.m.

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