2016 marks the 180th anniversary of Laurel Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1836, the private burial ground is managed by The Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery, a non-profit organization that offers year-round cultural and educational programming to the public, with proceeds benefitting the preservation of the National Historic Landmark. Among its more than 100 events per year are tours, concerts, lectures, and theatrical productions, providing an ideal partnership for The Mechanical Theater, an outstanding young company with a mission of performing classic works in historic properties.
An apropos twist on the popular presentations of “Shakespeare in the Park,” Mechanical is currently staging a two-weekend/four-performance production of RICHARD III on the grounds and amid the tombs of Laurel Hill. As seen in an on-site dress rehearsal two days before the show’s opening on July 15, the haunting vision of “Shakespeare in the Cemetery” effectively evokes the omnipresence “of bloody deeds and death” inherent in The Bard’s violent English history of civil war, political intrigue, blind ambition, and rampant killing.
Mechanical’s condensed 90-minute version of the play, masterfully edited and directed by Josh Hitchens, is focused, powerful, and visually stunning. Performed by a cast of six on the ramp and colonnaded portico of a Neoclassical mausoleum, the backdrop of towering old trees, time-worn tombstones, monuments, and funereal statuary enhances the play’s dark and deadly tone—made even more unnerving as the sun sets and blackness envelops the actors and their macabre outdoor locale. Hitchens’ dramatic blocking also creates arresting silhouettes of the cast, especially notable in the poses of grief that are struck by three of the women, expressing their personal reactions to the brutal ends met by their loved ones.
Ryan Walter turns in an impassioned performance as the titular monarch, capturing the disturbed psyche of a violent man who is amused by his own duplicity, enraged by the slightest threat of resistance to his will, but also self-loathing in his deformed body and the vicious epithets it elicits (Hitchens stresses the repeated verbal attacks to which “that foul bunch-back’d toad” is subjected). He is diabolical in his treachery, remorseless in his murders and executions, guilt-ridden in his sleep, and desperate in his attempt to escape his own mortality on the battlefield (with a stellar delivery of Richard’s hopeless plea, “A horse! A horse! my kingdom for a horse!”).
Along with Walter, the five supporting actors—Neena Boyle, Megan Edelman, Rachel Gluck, Josh McLucas, and Loretta Vasile–are thoroughly skilled in their facility with the Elizabethan language, and compelling in their understanding of the characters’ emotions and motivations. Each of the five plays multiple roles (including some cross-gender casting, with Lords Hastings, Buckingham, and Catesby now portrayed as Ladies), making quick costume changes and clearly distinguishing between them, so that the audience never becomes confused with the complex narrative.
Within the actual historic setting of the cemetery, the supplemental artistic design is minimal but telling. Simple contemporary costumes and accessories accurately identify and define the characters, a few well-chosen props (weapons, a skeleton, a severed head, and a liquor flask) propel the story, and creepy organ music punctuates the tone of devastation at key points in the impactful production.
When you go, you are invited to BYO beach chairs or blankets, food and beverages to the performance. Free parking is available across the street from the main gate.
[Laurel Hill Cemetery, 3822 Ridge Ave.] July 15-16 and 22-23, 2016; themechanicaltheater.weebly.com.
Note: Deb Miller attended a preview performance of RICHARD III.