The Bard, light and dark, back to back

All-male troupe delivers ‘Comedy’ followed by haunting ‘Richard III’

Richard Clothier is the title character in the Propeller Theatre Company’s “Richard III.’’ Richard Clothier is the title character in the Propeller Theatre Company’s “Richard III.’’ (Manuel Harlan)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / May 24, 2011

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Versatility, thy name is Propeller.

It’s a head-spinning experience to watch actors from Britain’s all-male Propeller Theatre Company tear up the stage in a slapstick performance of “The Comedy of Errors’’ and then, a few hours later, to see those same actors enter and wholly inhabit the heart of darkness in “Richard III.’’

Vertigo, thy name is also Propeller. But this is the very best kind of disorientation.

Both the uproariously over-the-top “Comedy of Errors’’ and the hypnotic, haunting “Richard III’’ are directed by Edward Hall, the company’s artistic director (and the son of the legendary Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company).

Hall is equally sure-handed in conjuring these utterly dissimilar worlds: one suffused with merriment, the other with dread; one the broadest imaginable physical comedy, the other the darkest imaginable political and psychological drama.

To both productions, which will run in repertory at the Boston University Theatre through June 19, the director brings a gift for crafting individual scenes that etch themselves into our memory while also fleshing out a conception of the works as illustrative of the Shakespearean canon’s infinite elasticity, and of the playwright’s unrivaled ability to illuminate the entire continuum of human behavior and emotion.

The acting is uniformly top-notch in both productions, but the director’s choice for the hunchbacked title character in “Richard III’’ is particularly inspired: not a diminutive or unprepossessing Quasimodo but rather the tall, silver-haired, distinguished-looking Richard Clothier.

It’s a master stroke, undercutting our assumptions by endowing old Crookback with an unexpected physical presence. Clothier’s Richard is a silky psychopath, with a smiling charm beneath cold eyes that makes it marginally less preposterous when, for instance, he brazenly woos Lady Anne (Jon Trenchard) over the corpse of her husband — whose death Richard himself had caused.

As he ruthlessly pursues the crown, he weaves a web of words that bamboozles his foes and rivals and those who foolishly think themselves his friends. This is a Richard so unremittingly cruel that he does not just kill people or have them killed; he also kicks their corpses. When he is finally coronated, he literally walks across several corpses. As to how Richard retrieves his ring from Lady Anne’s finger once he has achieved the throne and fulfilled his chillingly casual vow that “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long’’ . . . well, the less said about that, the better.

Hall’s design team, especially set and costumes designer Michael Pavelka, contributes enormously to the nightmarish atmosphere. “Richard III’’ unfolds in an oppressively grim, Victorian-era hospital that doubles as an execution chamber. It is populated by men whose tight-fitting white masks give them an inhuman aspect. Clothier, as Richard, wears a long black jacket, with a noticeable but not particularly pronounced hump. His left hand is missing, and a steel brace is affixed to his right leg.

In an eerie touch, puppets (created by Sìan Willis) are used to represent two children (the sons of King Edward) whom Richard first imprisons in the Tower of London, then has murdered. The puppets somehow manage to be spooky-looking and touchingly vulnerable at the same time, and their demise is unforgettably rendered by Hall. In another memorable scene, Richard’s brother Clarence (John Dougall) is stabbed, assaulted with a drill, and then finally drowned. Did I mention that this is not a “Richard III’’ for the squeamish?

Only subtlety dies in “The Comedy of Errors,’’ you may be happy to learn. In this whoopee cushion of a production, Hall pulls out all the stops, starting with a sombrero-and-sunglasses-wearing mariachi band.

The impossibly convoluted plot hinges on a double case of mistaken identity. Antipholus of Syracuse (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) is mistaken for his identical twin, Antipholus of Ephesus (Sam Swainsbury), by the latter’s wife, Adriana (Robert Hands). Neither of the twins knows of the other’s existence, having been separated as children in a shipwreck. No sooner has Antipholus of Syracuse been shanghaied by Adriana than he takes a shine to Adriana’s sister, Luciana (David Newman).

Further complicating matters is the fact that Antipholus of Syracuse has a servant named Dromio (Richard Frame), who is the identical twin of the servant of Antipholus of Ephesus. The latter servant is also named Dromio (Trenchard). Neither of the Dromios knows of the other’s existence.

There are sundry mixups and misunderstandings, none of which add up to a brass farthing except as a pretext for Hall’s cast to make merry. That they do, in a style that suggests the Three Stooges crossed with Monty Python. There are kicks to the groin, bops on the noggin, pokes to the eye — all accompanied by Stooges-style sound effects created by sound designer David Gregory — along with anachronistic snatches of disco and even a cry of “I want my MTV!’’

Trenchard and the other actors who play female characters in “Richard III’’ do not wear wigs or exaggerate their femininity in any way, but in “The Comedy of Errors’’ they do, to put it mildly. As Adriana, Hands plays the eyelash-batting, hands-on-hips diva to the hilt, while Newman’s Luciana, in a chiffon skirt and pointy glasses, calls to mind Andrea Martin’s Edith Prickley from “SCTV.’’

If you can catch only one of these Propeller productions, “Richard III’’ is the one you should consider a must. Of course, you just might need “The Comedy of Errors’’ to help get rid of the bad dreams “Richard’’ will give you.

Don Aucoin can be reached at




Plays by: William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Sets and costumes, Michael Pavelka. Lights, Ben Ormerod. Sound, David Gregory.

Production by Propeller Theatre Company. Presented by Boston University School of Theatre in association with Huntington Theatre Company.

At: Boston University Theatre.

Through June 19. Tickets $25-$89, 617-266-0800,

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