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Hannah Berk

Redefining Soft: Making Space for Masculine of Center Community Healing

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by TAGG Magazine and can be read on that site here.

What happens when a community comes together to reclaim a word that has been weaponized against them? The two-day event Redefining Soft aims to offer an example that emphasizes healing and affirmation. Participants will challenge one another’s concept of softness and explore their own relationships to the word as masculine of center women (MOC), trans masculine, and gender non-conforming individuals.

Robin Williams created Redefining Soft in response to a series of conversations she found herself having MOC friends, acquaintances, and former partners who expressed a need for emotional support that was rarely afforded to them. “They felt targeted a lot when it came to being vulnerable or emotional as they weren’t given the space to express that with their femme-identifying partners,” Williams explains.

Realizing this kind of space was lacking even in her own relationships, she wanted to create one that would be openly accessible and would kickstart conversations that participants could carry forward with one another and with the people in their lives. Femme-identifying herself, she partnered with additional individuals and organizations such as BlackGirlMasculine and bklyn boihood to shape and facilitate the event in close partnership with members of the community Redefining Soft serves.

Now in its second annual iteration, the event is making its Washington, D.C. debut August 17-18. Participants will be offered an array of avenues for reflection and self-expression. The agenda includes creative writing and journaling exercises, guided meditation, Reiki healing, a visual art workshop, and a panel discussion on sex and relationships. Throughout, participants will have the chance to process in pairs, small groups, and large gatherings, as well as individually. A meet and greet happy hour is also included on August 17 at XX+ Crostino.

Building community, says Williams, is a central purpose of Redefining Soft. “One thing that I love about the events so far is that people have left with new friendships and new bonds and things said out loud that they’ve never said before.

The event has grown in numbers and in sponsorship since its inaugural convening in New York last year, and Williams has big plans for the future. She is partnering with LGBTQ financial literacy specialist Kenneth Davis to establish a non-profit, a step that would allow greater expansion and sustainability.

Whatever its scale, the goals of Redefining Soft remain the same: reclaiming the power of softness, building community among MOC folks, and sparking conversations that will open up new depths of interpersonal understanding beyond the weekend.

“It’s my goal that, if nothing else, people walk away from the event asking themselves and the people in their relationships tougher questions, and actually holding space for the answers,” Williams explains. The reflective weekend is designed to support participants in discovering and defining for themselves the power that lies in vulnerability.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Brecht’s warning about fascism at Scena Theatre

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their website here.

Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (trans. George Tabori) presents us with a familiar story: a churlish Chicago mobster slashes and wheedles his way to the top. This time, it’s the top of the city’s cauliflower game. In case that doesn’t ring a bell, Scena Theatre’s production offers up Brecht’s suggested projections, orienting us within the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.

Each scene and its players has a direct parallel to historical events and people, and the play has an anti-fascist message to hammer home. The show is high-energy, builds a cinematic gangster world, and has moments of resonance, even if the parable lacks a nuanced consideration of fascism’s horrors.

Brecht wrote this play in 1941 after going into exile from Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power. He envisioned it for an American audience, but its first staging would actually be a posthumous one in 1958 Berlin.

It opens with a vaudevillian summary in which the ensemble lays out the plot, its major players, and establishes the play’s breakneck dialogic speed. We then meet Ui, Brecht’s Hitler analog, played by Robert Sheire as equal parts glory-hungry and insecure. He whines about his reputation, sports an ill-fitting get-up, and needs his henchmen to explain how corruption works, and yet he shrewdly pinpoints his opponents’ weaknesses and evinces a ruthless pragmatism: “When guns are silent,” he proclaims, “so’s the press!”

Ui and his gang wrest control of the Cauliflower Trust from Dogsborough (Joe Palka), a well-respected local politician tied up in some embezzlement schemes. Palka gives a mournful, conflicted performance of a man whose ethics never quite win out over self-interest. Looking out the window of his country house, he muses, “The lake looks just like silver before it’s been beaten into a dollar piece.” Dogsborough is just the first in a long line of people and institutions Ui bulldozes through on his way to power, including the justice system, despite the protests of an astounded defense attorney (Caroline Johnson).

No one seems especially drawn to Ui, other than his loyal friend Roma (Lee Ordeman); his rise is best explained by a critical mass of people choosing the path of least resistance.

This is in part a satire, and the show mostly strikes a good balance between its dark subject matter and sardonic tone. It plays up the absurdity of Ui’s insistence that grocers are in great danger (a danger he has independently and intentionally generated), and the dissonance between his self-righteous grandeur and his apparent petulance is a frequent punchline. A highlight of the show is the scene in which Ui solicits elocution coaching from a classical Shakespearian actor (director Robert McNamara). He learns to strut, gesture, and orate with excess pomp. Sheire exaggerates the awkwardness to comedic effect as his Ui gains confidence.

This moment is punctuated by an intermission and an overall tonal shift in a darker direction; sound designer Denise Rose fills the pause with an eerie mix of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” In the second act, Ui edges closer to a Richard III archetype; he is decreasingly funny, more paranoid, and quicker to kill. A sort of emotional climax to the play is his decision to have Roma executed on wrongful suspicion of disloyalty. In one of the most effective scenes, his ghost visits Ui’s dreams. Lighting designer Johnathan Alexander bathes the stage in hellish red as Ordeman tumbles, contorts, and torments the sleeping dictator.

The play is sometimes a little heavy-handed in its moralism (see the projection over a courtroom scene that reads, “Mockery of Justice”), and sometimes not hard-hitting enough. Since Brecht was writing about the ascent of Hitler more than his rule, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is absent the extremities of fascist violence. Ui’s avarice is dark, but doesn’t plumb the hatred that allows a genocide to take place, and there is no treatment of either complicity or resistance beyond a blanket assumption of human cowardice.

At a time when we are arguing over what to term the concentration camps popping up along the southern U.S. border and the real-life parallels to historical atrocities proliferate, it can feel counter-productive to toy with fatalism.

The few who make an effort to stand up to Ui are minor characters and almost immediately bend or are dispensed with. The apathetic grocers, stand-ins for the working people writ large, see through him but don’t think about organizing against him beyond throwing up their hands (literally) and imagining themselves defenseless in the face of his gang’s guns. The final tableau, Ui with one arm raised in a heil, surrounded by tentative grocers imitating the motion, strikes a chilling note. Breaking from the group, Sheire delivers Brecht’s famous concluding warning about the fascist regimes brewing as we speak. What are we going to do about it? If Ui’s rise is indeed “resistible,” it’s up to the audience to figure out how that might be.

Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho from Taffety Punk

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be read on their site here.

“How to translate [Antigone]?”, Anne Carson self-reflexes in her translator’s note to the Sophokles classic. “I take inspiration from John Cage who, when asked / how he composed 4’33”, answered / ‘I built it up gradually out of many small pieces of silence.’” I begin with the translator because Taffety Punk’s double feature of Antigonick and The Fragments of Sappho is very much a Carson showcase, replete with her stark lyricism and weird maneuverings among epochs and tones to shape an otherworld of her own.

The two texts both center defiantly femme energies and ancient Greek authors born a century or two apart. To move from Sappho to Antigonick is to move from motifs of silence to those of silencings. In dance, music, and language, these productions explore capacious absences, fashioning from them an always provocative space.

First up is The Fragments of Sappho, a hybrid performance of poetry through dance, music, and recitation, the brainchild of choreographer Katie C. Sopoci Drake and director Marcus Kyd. Sappho was a Greek lyric poet born in the 6th century BCE whose influence has loomed large across time. Only one poem survives in full—it kickstarts the show—and the rest in degrees of fragmentation, printed on weathered papyrus scrolls without line breaks. In Carson’s If Not, Winter, the inspiration text for this piece, she presents the complete remnants of Sappho’s work, including stand-alone words, and uses single brackets to denote missing or illegible text.

In Sopoci Drake’s choreography, a troupe of dancers arch into parentheses and bend into brackets, leaping and contorting around what’s left unsaid. One of the piece’s greatest contributions is its embodiment of translation’s labor, so often rendered invisible. As the dancers lift and carry one another across the stage, we see the work of arranging, supplanting, and conveying language—from thought to page and from one language to another—made manifest. Using only drums, a bass, and a singer’s voice, the original music composed by Dan Crane, Marcus Kyd, and Kelsey Mesa echoes the simultaneous spareness and throbbing fullness of the fragments.

In exploring absence, space, and process, the piece is deft and beautiful. In portraying the poetry’s content, it is somewhat less nuanced. Sappho is most famous for her love poems, often written to other women. All femme-presenting, the dancers’ movements portray the longing and sensuousness of the poems with outstretched limbs and fleeting intertwinings. Sappho’s desire is present, but the intimacy and gratification much of her poetry manifests is missing; the dancers never make eye contact, and the recitations tend to affect a mournful tone. While effective on the terms of this choice, there is a missed opportunity for celebration and queer joy.

Antigonick, too, is interested in excavating its own creation process. This production begins when Antigone (Lilian Oben) steps out from behind a translucent red curtain as she responds to a voiceover of Carson’s translator’s note. Silently, she struts, scoffs, and eyerolls at the interpretations her translator catalogues, aware from the beginning that her signification is historical and up for debate. While the play is an update to the classic, its goal is not modernization or accessibility so much as it is a marrow-ward winnowing; its primary concern is in embodying the experience of grief, loss, and power relations.

The narrative bones are all in place in this retelling. Antigone and her sister, Ismene, are mourning the loss of their two brothers, killed in a battle against each other over legitimate rule of the kingdom. Kreon, their uncle, has just assumed the throne and decreed that the body of Polyneikes, the brother he blames for the bloodshed, will be left to decay in the desert without burial rites. Declaring that justice must supercede the law, Antigone buries her brother anyway and is caught. Kreon, enraged at her defiance of his newly minted authority, orders her buried alive, and tragedy begets tragedy as Kreon’s son and wife unravel, their suicides leaving him alone to suffer the consequences of his folly.

In Carson’s raw translation, the wounds of the play open up. The Chorus (comprising Danny Puente Cackley, Louis E. Davis, Rachel Felstein, and Teresa Spencer, and led by Esther Williamson) sings out, “[ruin] comes rolling the black night salt up from the ocean floor / and all your thrashed coasts groan.” The poetry is reason enough to see the play. But far from locked into one note, the production teases out comedy, too. Dan Crane plays Kreon as an absurdist, grandiose and pedantic. He announces his own entrance on stage and, when Antigone requests an expedited punishment, retorts, “no let’s split hairs a while longer.” Eurydike (Teresa Spencer), who delivers a show-stopping monologue conspicuously absent from Sophokles’ original, is at once madcap and tragic as she relates her niece’s troubled youth: “try to unclench / we said to her / she never did / we got her the bike / we got a therapist…”

Lilian Oben’s Antigone is complex and wildly compelling, mad with grief and yet grounded in a logic of love and justice on her own terms. Oben allows Antigone to be young, vulnerable, and afraid without wavering in her strength and conviction. Her casting as one of only two black actors in the production forefronts the unequal distribution of punishment in the play. Ismene (Teresa Spencer) also confesses to Antigone’s crime in supposed solidarity, but goes free; Kreon is concerned only with silencing “the loud one” between the two sisters.

And then there’s Nick (Katie Murphy), who never leaves the stage and, in accordance with the text’s only stage directions for the character, “measures things.” Without spoiling the surprising effects of this presence, suffice it to say that Murphy’s realization of the ambiguous figure is smart and evocative, and reminds us always that AntigonickAntigone, and Antigone exist within a function of time—however we may define or experience it.

The Fragments of Sappho and Antigonick both study silence and all its possibilities. They lead us elsewhere, toward a voice, but what it says is ultimately up to us; we’re the latest in a centuries-long line of audiences interpreting these women. Taffety Punk is doing us a service in inviting us into these beautifully (re)imagined translations to inhabit and reshape the spaces they create.

The Dupont Under(world): The passages between life and death await you

by Hannah Berk

This article was first published by DC Theatre Scene and can be found on their site here.

Tradition Be Damned (TBD) Immersive, DC’s first large-scale immersive theater company, isn’t interested in designing shows for audiences to watch. They want to create worlds for participants to explore, with the stated goal of generating “new opportunities for empathy and engagement.” Immersive theater offers exciting avenues for blurring the lines between reality and fiction, between creator and consumer.

Risk is also inherent. It is easy for experiments to turn into gimmicks, and such shows walk a tremulous line in providing sufficient guidance for participants to understand and embrace the world they are entering while still allowing us to freely interact with and alter that world. The Dupont Under(World), TBD Immersive’s most recent venture, is an entertaining introduction to this innovative genre, but leaves something to be desired at its emotional core.

Under(World) shows are limited to 10 participants at a time, 5 of whom are assigned to travel from life to death, while the others travel from death to life. (I traveled from death to life, and so this review will focus on that half of the experience.) The setting is the Dupont Underground, a tunnel-turned-art space that lends itself to the show’s construction as a journey. Participant souls are met at the underground entrances by a guide who leads them through a series of rooms in which participants complete tasks or engage in experiences that theoretically prepare them for their transition into life or death.

Although the graphic murals and association with gallery openings and trendy shows makes the Dupont Underground seem a little too cool to be a purgatory, TBD Immersive works impressively within the space. Highlights include an ethereal soundscape crafted by Rikki Fromahder, the regal presence of the life guide (Keenan Gibson), and imaginative costumes designed by Deborah Lash and Colleen Parker.

At every turn, Under(World) is interactive; actors ask questions of the souls, guide them through small activities, and offer up elements of the set to be touched and manipulated. It is important to enter the show ready to suspend disbelief and be a willing participant. Nonetheless, interactivity is not the same as immersion. I felt some uncertainty surrounding participants’ roles on the life journey, which kept one of my feet planted firmly outside the underworld throughout. As spirits traveling out from a collective unconsciousness, we are told that we may have only fuzzy memories of the world above and of our previous incarnations. Are we supposed to be playing memory-washed characters, or should we bring our real experiences to bear? Unfortunately, this question goes almost entirely unexplored. While the experience feels somewhat personalized through conversational elements, the choices participants are asked to make are limited and appear to have no substantive effect on the development of the show.

By taking on the weighty subject of life and death, Under(World) establishes an expectation of conceptual experimentation and emotional gravity. The tone of the play is serious, but not reflective. Most welcome, there is no pontification about the meaning of life and death. Producing Artistic Director Strother Gaines explains that the show tries “to guide audience members to use their own lives and experiences to fill in moments of meaning that are important to them rather than us tell them ‘this is how you should feel about life!’” I am always grateful to have unanswered questions at the end of a show, but I wished that this one had raised more of them in the first place.

Most of the experiences participants engage in along the journey feel perfunctory or playful to the point of slight. Even the show’s climax of sorts, in which the life and death tracks cross and souls on opposite paths meet, has an air of empty ceremony rather than sacred ritual. Only the final room along the journey (which, for those traveling the alternate track, constitutes the first) resonated with me. I won’t spoil its surprise, but its success lies in making space for a private moment that grapples with grief, fear, and uncertainty. This room is a glimpse into what Under(World), devised with greater space for silence and mystery, could be.

TBD Immersive clearly comprises a talented, dedicated team. Working in Dupont Underground with its spatial restrictions and electrical oddities must be a major challenge; the sets are smartly designed and visually appealing; the actors are skilled improvisers. Immersive theater is a great way to involve audiences in the artistic and interpretive leaps a play requires, and to democratize the world-making function of theater. I am a newcomer to their productions, though they’ve been at work for the past three years; I can’t wait to see what they do next. I only wish that Under(World) took fuller advantage of the resources at its disposal and the formal possibilities. A show that takes us deep into the belly of the city should also guide us beyond the surface of its subject matter.

Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn), an act of reclamation for indigenous trans people

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

“Our work is ceremony, because, to us, art is ceremony,” writes Alexa Elizabeth Rodriguez in her Director’s Note. This is the experience of Siwayul (Heart of a Womxn): the audience is witness to and participant in a ceremony of remembrance and healing. We travel an emotional arc more than an imposed narrative one, moving through sorrow, anger, joy, defiance.

As the stage lights go up, House Manager Kariwase Duprey welcomes us, acknowledges our presence on ancestral Piscataway land, and reads out a list of names: that of every trans womxn known to have been killed in the U.S. and internationally since the last Trans Day of Remembrance in November 2018. Less than five months have passed, and yet as Duprey reads, it seems the list will never end. Such names, if we ever hear of them, are swallowed up by the news cycle in no time flat. This production—this ceremony—rejects that erasure: these women are called in as ancestors, and made present in the play.

Our guide throughout the performance is one womxn, Xemiyulu Manibusan Tapepechul (who goes by Xemi), the playwright and sole actor, playing every character with transfixing range. At the center is Alex, a young Two-Spirit from the country known internationally as El Salvador who is on a journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through Alex, Xemi tells the story of doubled dispossession that many Two-Spirits face: when the spotlight is on trans issues, it usually excludes Indigenous people. When the spotlight is on Indigenous people, it usually excludes trans womxn. Alex jealously watches cis Salvadorans from afar as they access and learn from Indigenous elders, knowing she would not be safe at home; at the same time, she kneels in memorial and mourning of her trans sisters killed in the U.S., knowing her new home is no haven.

If the story Alex has been handed by the binaried, white supremacist world is one of dispossession, this hour-long tour de force is an act of reclamation. After Alex reads off scholarly proclamations about how Náhuat, her ancestral language, is purportedly “dying,” she sits down in defiance to teach herself her tongue. The text available to her, however, cannot be trusted; when it tells her “siwayul,” a compound word meaning “heart of a woman,” refers to a gay man, she questions who the authors empowered to define the word are. We can imagine: they are cis, heteronormative, and embedded in colonial machinery. “It is my living language,” Alex declares, wrapping herself in the word as a trans femme.

As befits a play that deals with the weight of history and the multiplicity of identity, Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn features a range of voices. Behind an array of colorful masks created by Ahanu On, Xemi embodies the ancestors to whom Alex turns for guidance: Siwayul, the Two-Spirit deity; Siwanawal, the skull-masked figure of La Llorona, a folkloric symbol of death, misfortune, and Indigenous oppression; and Nantzin Paula, a poet and musician in the Náhuat language. Xemi’s transformations are completed by simple, effective accessories designed by Angel Garcia.

Siwayul: Heart of a Womxn, now in its third iteration at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop after a 2017 debut at the DC Queer Theatre Festival and a second run last year, is based on Xemi’s first poetry collection, Metzali: Siwayul Shitajkwilu. The play’s language is rich, textured, and intimate. Xemi is an impressive performer, capable of moving seamlessly from Nantzin Paula’s peaceful meditation on communion with the Earth, delivered in a mix of Spanish and Náhuat, to a poem in which Alex, towering above the audience on a pedestal, demands reparations for Two-Spirits directly from the audience.

Xemi’s words disrupt complacency through rage and despair, but also joy and contentment. “The ancestors spoke to me,” Alex cries out early on. “They told me I am beautiful. That I’m exactly who I’m supposed to be.” The play is presented by Nelwat Ishkamewe (meaning Indigenous Root), a Two-Spirit (Native American transgender, intersex, asexual, queer+) collective that Xemi described in a talkback as producing “professional community theater”; she also serves as the group’s Artistic Director. It is rare to see stories centered on the stories of black and brown trans femmes.

What a precious gift to see those stories claim their rightful place in the spotlight, designed and produced at every level by the only people qualified to tell such stories well: the womxn who have lived them.

Silent, spectacular performance from Dublin’s Fishamble

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

It’s a rare gift for a play to present a despairing character with both lightness and the sincerity he deserves. Silent and its subject, Tino, are by turns funny, bleak, and feverish, but always riveting. One minute into this show, as Tino slowly emerges from beneath a blanket on stage in a kind of haunting, playful dance, you’ll know what you’re in for: a keenly observed, carefully crafted, fluidly executed character study brought to life by a spectacular performer.

A solo play, written and performed by Pat Kinevane and directed by Jim Culleton for Dublin-based theater company FishambleSilent is making its DC debut this month at the Atlas Performing Arts Center thanks to Solas Nua, a contemporary Irish arts organization in DC. The play netted a coveted Olivier Award in 2016 and has been staged around the world, but stepping into Atlas’s Lab Theatre II, you’d think it was tailor-made for that space. The all-black theater engulfs the audience in total darkness, and the smartly directed lighting creates a cinematic array of spotlights, alleyway glows, looming shadows, and even disco flashes in one terrifying scene. The small room and low-lying seats allow Kinevane to walk among the audience with ease and strike up conversations as he goes. Tino isn’t soliloquizing; he’s looking us in the eye, telling us a story, and making sure we’re listening.

This direct, down-to-earth communication does nothing to diminish the subject’s flair for the dramatic. Named after Rudolph Valentino by a mother obsessed with silent film, Tino is capable of his namesake’s wild theatrics. Present-day Tino is a homeless man in County Cork, but he inhabits various times, bodies, and personas throughout the show. In one of the play’s running jokes, he dials a mental health line with an absurdist automated menu: “If you have multiple personalities, please press 1, 2, 5, and 6.” Through Tino’s multiplicity—and Kinevane’s genius ability to transform objects, negative space, and himself into absent people—we meet his strict, self-conscious mother, his beloved older brother Pierce, his long-suffering wife Judy, his childhood self, and a cast of fleeting characters.

Tino mostly relays these characters to us in conversational style, but at times he launches into pure performativity. Silentgives us a new take on the play-within-a-play. Over the course of the show, we watch five “films” complete with titles, pre-recorded dialogue booming through the speakers, and Tino acting out every part with dancerly panache. The films center on his brother Pierce’s attempts on his own life. Tino obsesses over Pierce throughout the play, and traces many of his problems—clinical depression, alcoholism—at least in part to his suicide.

It is through this storyline that the theme of silence is most wrenchingly reinforced. Pierce was queer, and harangued for it by other boys and his own mother from a young age. Tino blames himself for never speaking up in his brother’s defense. Even after his death, Pierce’s story remains shrouded in silence; no one at the funeral will say the word suicide, even though, Tino tells us in a fury, “the word was always there, begging to escape, behind the corners of everyone’s downturned mouths!”

Silent film stars made their facial expressions and gestures speak the volumes they could not. Tino uses the medium to turn a story that was muted and swept under the rug in his own life into an epic for all to see.

Pierce and Tino’s relationship is most moving because the play devotes so much time to it. Tino reminisces about what his brother would say in his sleep when the boys bunked in the same childhood room, about finding Pierce’s pornography (Cockatoo Magazine), about how he dressed and who he hung out with. Some other elements of Tino’s story are less convincing. The tale of his wife kicking him out of the house for drunkenness and his distance from his adolescent son feel more like tropes because these moments and figures in his life are never fleshed out. In attempting to present a complete tapestry of Tino’s life, Silent leaves some areas a little threadbare. This never throws off the show’s balancing act, though, because we’re sufficiently invested in Kinevane’s entrancing voice, fitful bursts of madness, and elaborate choreography.

Solas Nua has arranged to make a certain number of tickets available to those experiencing homelessness in DC for every show. Upcoming performances will also feature a series of talkbacks with Kinevane and representatives of local organizations fighting poverty and providing services to DC’s homeless community. These practical conversations on what can be done to alleviate the suffering presented in this play are a crucial follow-up. It’s one thing to walk away from Silent with renewed empathy for marginalized members of our own community, and another to work toward dismantling their marginalization. This production takes experiences we often overlook, and will not let us turn away. Nor will you want to.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s ‘Richard III’ explores public’s complicity in tyranny

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

How often have you flung up your hands and decried this moment of “political theater” in the United States? Richard III — showing through Sunday at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall — stands among Shakespeare’s great works of conscience not only in its exposure of power-hungry depravity, but also in demonstrating how the public’s participation is what makes such depravity possible. Fling up your hands no more: You play an essential role in this production.

Director David Muse highlights the play’s “great treatment of complicity,” which makes it an excellent choice for the present day — a point made not only in his production notes but also in “Bookends,” a Shakespeare Theatre Company (STC) audience engagement program designed to deepen and democratize the conversation between theater and audience. The pre- and post-show event is held for one performance night of every play the STC stages, beginning with a facilitated dialogue about the historical context of the play and its place in popular imagination, and ending with a cast Q&A.

Samantha Wyre Bellow, senior director of education, and Drew Lichtenberg, literary manager, kicked off the Feb. 13 discussion by emphasizing the vast interpretive possibilities of Shakespeare’s living texts while providing a helpful framework for critically viewing this particular production. Fracturing the lens of centuries past, they encouraged the audience to watch for echoes of our own era in the play — and to be wary of the ways in which, Wyre Bellow argued, “the villain takes us along as accomplices.”

Richard III chronicles the Duke of Gloucester’s murder- and manipulation-paved rise to the crown, and his ultimate demise. A play whose first act sees Richard engineer his brother’s imprisonment and assassination is not about the making of a tyrant so much as the way the world responds to tyranny. We watch as lords ally themselves with the Duke for personal gain, only to lose their heads when their utility expires; attendants do his bidding with blind loyalty, and the public eats up his campaigns of misinformation.

Despite its overt politicism, Richard III is only as cutting as the director’s editorial eye. One of Shakespeare’s early plays — and one of his longest — it is bogged down by references to British history and a parade of minor characters. For the STC’s production, Muse has winnowed away 40 percent of the original text. Though the play remains dense, uneven and occasionally prosaic, Muse’s excerpting helps propel the plot.This serves his overarching goal of clarity, as does his gift to the audience of a dramatis personae projected in lights above the stage as each character enters. 

This production is contemporary, but avoids the limiting trope of tying Richard to any one moment or figurehead. Costume designer Murell Horton’s clean-cut gray suits and neutral gowns feel austere and timeless. Debra Booth’s chilling set places us in an abattoir of gray, rusting walls and industrial machinery, lit by an enormous operating-room light — anywhere’s underbelly.

In this wintry hell, Matthew Rauch plays the title character as an understated devil. His hasty delivery of Richard’s opening soliloquy establishes a steely and expedient villain with whom we won’t be asked to empathize. Though never plumbing beyond a sociopathic interpretation of the character, Rauch swings an impressive arc. His early magnetism comes from quick-tongued repartee and limitless audacity. His confidence grows along with his body count, but his giddiness diminishes as he adjusts to success. When allies dissipate and his downfall nears, he physically disintegrates before our eyes; inconspicuous in earlier acts, the disability he obsesses over crystallizes as a property of his own fear and self-loathing.

Rauch is surrounded by strong performances of underdeveloped characters. Cara Ricketts is a firebrand Lady Anne, whose deeply ambiguous wooing scene suggests that she is not stupidly seduced by Richard, but is making a calculated move to align herself with political power. Derrick Lee Weeden’s Lord Hastings blusters through his misgivings all the way to the chopping block. More cog than character here, Christopher Michael McFarland’s Buckingham has little personality beyond the obedience he mistakenly thinks will buy Richard’s good graces. As the young princes standing in the way of the Duke’s succession, Charlie Niccolini and Logan Matthew Baker play up their boyishness, demonstrating how two royals might place trust in such an unsettling uncle.

Then there’s the ensemble, who stamp their feet and whet their knives to foreshadow bloodshed. No murder takes place in off-stage secrecy as envisioned in Shakespeare’s text. Instead, the ensemble chants, dances, and encircles the bodies. This dramatization often feels heavy-handed, especially when coupled with the too-sinister score. In moderation, though, it could have been a good device to implicate the whole kingdom — and ultimately the rapt audience — in the villainy afoot.

Throughout the show, center stage is occupied by a misogynistic Richard, yet in this production the women wield the greatest power. Although the Duchess of York (Sandra Shipley) and Queen Elizabeth (Robynn Rodriguez) are played one-note, they are the only ones in Richard’s circle to truly defy him. Lizan Mitchell’s Margaret of Anjou reverberates with the presence of an oracle when issuing her prophetic curses — perhaps delivering too much spectacle, though it’s fitting that the conscience of such a play would feel out of place. 

Importantly, women aren’t limited to providing the play’s moral compass; Sofiya Cheyenne is a compelling Mayor of London who decides to play Richard’s pawn to save her own skin. Evelyn Spahr — a young woman — is cast as the Earl of Richmond, who ultimately defeats Richard and restores order to England. The choice to cast women in these traditionally male roles dominated the discussion in the “Bookends” closing Q&A. “I think there is power in a woman holding power at the end of the show,” Cheyenne commented.

The show ends with a resounding inhalation, ostensibly a breath of hope. It should also serve as a suspenseful pause. History has shown us that the toppling of one Richard does nothing to impede the rise of the next. Real tyrants’ magnetism often draws us in until our own hands are covered in the blood they’ve spilled. At its best, this involving production is not a diversion, but a useful wake-up call.

Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard III opened Feb. 5 and continues through March 10 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets cost $44 to $125.