BRATTLEBORO—How little does it take to put on a Shakespeare play effectively?
Actor and writer Alex Hacker of Analog Players thinks a stellar production can be done with the simplest of resources.
On Thursday, Aug. 22, at 7 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, Aug. 23 and 24, at 8 p.m., Analog Players brings to the Hooker-Dunham Theater and Gallery a truly unique Shakespearean performance for two actors and two puppets, King Dick, a.k.a., Richard III.
”This will be a much cut and slightly deformed version of Shakespeare’s famous history play,” Hacker says. “Ours will be a very bare production. The lighting is done by me, and there are no sound effects. My goal is to approximate how staging would be done in Shakespeare’s time.”
Hacker likes the challenge of making theater at this elemental level.
“Such simplicity can be super-entertaining,” he adds. “I think certain modern elements of stagecraft make things too easy.”
In this tragedy turned into tragicomedy, Richard III is played by Scott Burke and Alex Hacker portrays almost everyone else in Shakespeare’s classic drama. These two actors are given support from two puppets who have dual roles, playing both guilty murderers and murdered innocent children.
King Dick was first presented in Baltimore in September 2016 under the title His Majestic Lump of Foul Deformity. That earlier title comes from a line in the original Shakespeare play, but Hacker ultimately thought it too esoteric.
And so, for its New England premiere, he has opted for something simpler and more direct.
Richard III is a historical play believed to have been written by Shakespeare around 1593. Depicting the Machiavellian rise to power and subsequent short reign of King Richard III of England, it is the second longest play in the Shakespearean canon after Hamlet.
While the latter was written in Shakespeare’s maturity, when the Bard was at the height of his powers, Richard III is an early work, when Shakespeare was still learning his craft.
Not surprisingly, the play is often abridged. For example, certain peripheral characters are removed entirely. In such instances, extra lines are often invented or added from elsewhere in the sequence to establish the nature of characters’ relationships.
“I saw a rare complete 3 1/2-hour version of Richard III at the Folger Library in Washington D.C.,” Hacker says. “It was so long that I found it difficult to sit through.”
In his adaption, King Dick, he cut Shakespeare’s text “down to a breezy 90 minutes.” He also adds a few new plot twists and turns along the way.
“I couldn’t resist messing with the text a bit,” Hacker says. “Probably 80 percent of King Dick is straight Shakespeare, but I did invent a subplot for fun as a comic relief. But there I tried to mimic Shakespeare’s language, so hopefully audiences won’t be able to tell the difference. I don’t want to give anything away ... but let’s just say the puppets aspire to lives of their own.”
In any of its manifestations, Richard III is a lively drama with an outlandish hunchback anti-hero, full of action and intrigue. The Folger Shakespeare Library summarizes the plot succinctly:
“As Richard III opens, Richard is Duke of Gloucester and his brother, Edward IV, is king. Richard is eager to clear his way to the crown. He manipulates Edward into imprisoning their brother, Clarence, and then has Clarence murdered in the Tower. Meanwhile, Richard succeeds in marrying Lady Anne, even though he killed her father-in-law, Henry VI, and her husband.
“When the ailing King Edward dies, Prince Edward, the older of his two young sons, is next in line for the throne. Richard houses the Prince and his younger brother in the Tower. Richard then stages events that yield him the crown.
“After Richard’s coronation, he has the boys secretly killed. He also disposes of Anne, his wife, in order to court his niece, Elizabeth of York. Rebellious nobles rally to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. When their armies meet, Richard is defeated and killed. Richmond becomes Henry VII. His marriage to Elizabeth of York ends the Wars of the Roses and starts the Tudor dynasty.”
While the original version may have a very large cast and invites often elaborate stage effects, Hacker contends that in his version, two actors and two puppets are enough. But then he does call on “an entire wardrobe’s worth of costume changes to help bring about the downfall of England’s most hated tyrant king.”
In his recent book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, about the playwright’s insight into bad (and often mad) rulers, a work which focuses primarily on Richard III, Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt implies a parallel between Richard and Donald Trump, although without ever mentioning the latter’s name. Hacker too was struck by the similarities between the two men.
“Shakespeare’s play is very relevant in our current political climate,” he says. “I began writing King Dick before his election in primary season, so at that time Trump was not really in my mind. In fact, I never thought his becoming president could ever happen. But now as we face this political reality, the play resonates much more than I had anticipated.”
Scott Burke relishes playing the arch villain Richard.
“There’s a certain fascination with this unscrupulous, power-hungry tyrant who trampled upon tradition, scorned social convention, and abided by no law but his own,” he explains. “It’s obviously written to be fun to play, and despite everyone’s best efforts to cut him down to size, Richard maintains an easygoing charm. Until the end, of course.”
Hacker acknowledges that Richard is an arduous part for Scott who is onstage the entire show. But then Hacker has a challenge of his own, since he has to play nearly all the other characters.
“I haven’t counted all the parts I play, but there are at least a dozen, from large parts to small roles like messengers,” Hacker says.
He also has to switch gender when he plays the female roles of Lady Anne and Richard’s mother.
“I try to do them straight, but any male playing a female on stage borders on the campy,” says Hacker. “In Shakespeare’s time, all roles were played by men, but today’s audiences naturally find some humor in the male/female switch. Yet I greatly enjoyed playing those parts.
“The female characters provide a very important aspect to the play. The whole feminine world is staunchly against what Richard stands for. Even Anne has her powerful moment, although she may capitulate to Richard in the end.”
The puppets were added to the show when Hacker needed more than two actors on stage.
“They started being only the murderers, but I didn’t want to get rid of them and used them as the little princes,” he says. “They also became pivotal in the subplot I created for this version. Although they are only in two or three dramatic scenes of King Dick, audiences find the puppets clearly the stars of the show.”
Hacker founded Analog Players in Baltimore in 2016.
“Analog Players is a small theater company which I formed to produce my own shows,” Hacker frankly admits.
Hacker was named Best New Playwright by the Baltimore City Paper in 2012 and has written and directed two plays that landed in their yearly top-ten list. Hacker has a background in ancient Greek and Latin, so when he joined an acting troupe in Baltimore, his first theater venture as a playwright was to transform Homer’s epic poem The Iliad into a play.
“My rendition took a Quentin Tarantino bent, with a decidedly mafioso aspect,” he says with a laugh.
Hacker also directed a production of Euripides’ The Bacchae in Baltimore, for which he wrote his own translation from ancient Greek. On a lighter note, Hacker also wrote what he calls “a silly Christmas play,” Anti Claus, about the disgruntled kid who discovers Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Hacker has recently relocated to Southern Vermont, where he hopes to put on many more plays in the future.
“I’m excited to be in Vermont,” he says. “For one, it’s beautiful, and so much of the culture here is an expression of what I love about the stage: it’s a place of glorious creativity.”