Oakland Tribune, August 1998
increasingly chilly Friday evening in Berkeley, the noise of the world
played an intriguing overture to what would be a gripping night of in-your-face
Shakespeare. Planes zoomed overhead, babbling kids rode clattering bikes,
freight trains rumbled in the distance and the occasional whoosh of a
BART train wafted by.
All that motion, energy and sound only seemed to feed the Shotgun Players
production of Richard III in the back parking lot at King Middle
School in residential North Berkeley. The troupe calls this a 'free Shakespeare
in the park(ing lot)' production, and for the next three weeks, they're
doing it on Fridays and Saturday at King and on Sundays in downtown Berkeley's
There's something elemental about the Shotgun setup. In addition to the
picnic tables already planted in the blacktop, the Shotgun folks have
upturned plastic buckets and put cushions on them to serve as seats. Comfort
is not the order of the evening.
A large, decrepit-looking white delivery truck has the Shotgun logo spray-painted
on its side, and a flimsy banner and two black platforms provide the play's
only backdrop. Four propane lanterns on poles are set up and lit in anticipation
of approaching darkness. And the darkness comes, in more ways than one.
Of all Shakespeare's history plays, Richard III has long been the
most popular and most frequently performed. Brutal, compelling and head-spinningly
complicated, Richard can be a feast of evil wreaking royal havoc,
or it can be a convoluted mess in which actors struggle to make sense
of the plot as it weaves its way through the end of England's labyrinthine
War of the Roses. As the Plantaganets, Lancasters and Yorks vie for the
throne of England, they stir up enough political corruption and sexual
malice to rival an American presidency.
Illuminated by the setting sun and then by lantern light, unaided by props
or fancy costumes, this Shotgun Richard is a revelation. By virtue
of its direct simplicity, the production is able to harness the considerable
energy of its young, appealing cast and turn a bit of hardscrabble pavement
into a dynamic theatre space.
Because Richard III is so complicated, it would be helpful to read
a brief synopsis before you see the play. The Shotgun program provides
a list of character descriptions, but because the 10 actors are playing
35 roles with little change of costume, things can get confusing.
Still, the focus and drive of director Patrick Dooley's production leaves
no doubt that this is the story of a man whose every breath serves his
heinous ambition. Richard is described in the play as the devil, a 'rooting
hog,' a 'son of hell' and a 'lump of foul deformity.' This is not a nice
Shotgun's Richard, Michael Storm, delivers a fiercely robust performance.
The play's success hinges on the audience's relationship with Richard.
Storm has the physical dexterity to make his hobbled character move like
a gorilla on the attack as well as the acting chops to make his many monologues
and asides fresh and compelling. To render this horrid man - who isn't
above killing children or compromising his victims' wives to seize the
throne - tolerable for nearly three hours is quite a trick. But Storm
pulls it off.
Also good in the uniformly strong, dexterous cast is Beth Donohue, whose
Queen Elizabeth is a prideful match for Richard's venomous maneuvering.
Antoinette Abbamonte gets one of the play's most dazzling moments as Queen
Margaret, who curses Richard and his court in a famous mad scene. With
a wonderful bit of stagecraft, Abbamonte delivers all her lines in sign
language while Ali Dadgar stands on one of the rear platforms and translates
the movement into Shakespearean verse.
The Shotgun Players have spent this summer providing free theatre to the
East Bay. Their spirited, colorful adaptation of The Odyssey has
been touring Berkeley and Oakland parks and ends this weekend in Mosswood
Park. It's all the more impressive, then, that this same cast sheds their
whimsical Greek costumes for the deadly serious street clothes of Richard
No other theatre company in the Bay Area has shown such range this summer,
and both Shotgun performances are free. That fact alone is impressive,
but when both shows have proven to be so good, the fact of Shotgun's emergence
as a major, audience-pleasing theatrical force is indisputable.
East Bay Express, December, 1998 Year in Review
someone who's been covering East Bay theatre since September, I feel a
bit of a fraud writing about the year in theatre. That caveat aside, I
find it significant that the most exciting and audacious production I
saw in the last four months was one I didn't get a chance to review at
the time: Shotgun Players' 'Shakespeare in the Parking Lot' presentation
of Richard III.
Patrick Dooley, Shotgun's indefatigable artistic director, wrote a letter
in the company's summer season mailer in which he noted that Richard
would also be running at the California Shakespeare Festival, and boldly
concluded, '1) Ours will be better. 2) Ours will be free.'
He was right on both counts. Performed in street clothes, on a bare platform
with minimal lighting, Shotgun's Richard connected with Shakespeare's
story and the audience in a way woefully lacking from Cal Shakes' flaccid
production. Even the butt-numbing concrete seating and chilly winds blowing
across the roof of Hink's Garage couldn't distract me from Shotgun's interpretation;
at Cal Shakes, even with a far more comfortable environment, I was restless
and irritated at several points.
...Though I've certainly seen productions I've enjoyed in Orinda, this
past season in particular I was plagued with a vague sense that Cal Shakes
offers Shakespeare for people who aren't sure they're going to like it
but think that they ought to make the effort in the name of culture. The
Shotgun production, on the other hand, which featured actors roaming through
the audience and using props collected from the crowd before the performance,
accomplished the task of proving that Shakespeare belongs to everyone,
not just those with the disposable income to buy a season subscription.
It wasn't necessarily the quality of the acting that made Shotgun's production
so much more viscerally interesting than Cal Shakes. Indeed, several performances
in the Shotgun emsemble were decidedly ragged, and more than a few of
the players were struggling with the language at times. But Shotgun was
blessed by a smoldering and multilayered turn by Michael Storm in the
title role than ran circles around David Ellenstein's shallow and smarmy
interpretation in the Cal Shakes production. (There were, in fact, moments
in the latter when I half-expected Ellenstein to do a wacky take to the
audience and say, a la Lou Costello, 'I've been a baaad little boy!')
I should note, in fairness, that doing an entire season of Shakespeare
presents casting difficulties that smaller companies...don't have to contend
with. That said, it's still difficult to believe that Cal Shakes, with
its high profile, couldn't come up with a stronger Richard.
...What really made the Shotgun production soar was director Dooley's
ability to get underneath the text and find new ways to deliver the familiar
material. Most notable was the decision to cast Queen Margaret with a
hearing-impaired actor (Antoinette Abbamonte), who fiercely delivered
Margaret's famous series of curses in Act I with American Sign Language
while another actor intoned the text. Though I was initially skeptical
when I heard about this - I frankly wondered if this would turn out to
be a case of 'stunt casting' done without regard to the integrity of the
story - the sequence was one of the most breathtaking and bold choices
I've seen in a Shakespeare play. We completely understand the depths of
Margaret's rage, grief, and despair - in the Shotgun production, she was
literally beyond the powers of language and reason. And the ritual, rhythmic
chanting of the 'ghost ensemble' in Act V, as they bade Richmond to 'live,
and flourish' and cursed Richard to 'despair, and die,' was simple, chilling,
and wholly effective.
...By making generic, safe choices, Cal Shakes runs the risk of making
...Among all the smaller companies in the East Bay, Shotgun arguably stands
the best chance of moving on to bigger things. It could become the East
Bay equivalent of San Francisco's Eureka Theatre Company in the 1980s,
a midsize company with a reputation for edgy new work that attracts highly
talented writers, actors, designers, and directors.
...If I have to spend another season sitting on concrete, without benefit
of conventional civilities like accessible bathrooms and gourmet concessions,
in order to enjoy another transcendent Shakespearean production like Shotgun's
Richard, that's a sacrifice I'm more than eager to make.
Weekly, August 26, 1998
Kingdom for an SUV
"Shakespeare in the Park" is a summer staple. The Shotgun Players are
giving their first-ever "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" tour not just
to be smartasses, but also because Richard III has an atmosphere of evil
that doesn't quite blend with green grass, birds, and wine. This is true
enough. But it also has a grandeur that doesn't quite go with stripes
painted on concrete, or with a big sign in the background that says "KITTREDGE
STREET PARKING," or with cars moving back and forth while the ghosts of
Richard's victims haunt his dreams. To me the smartass name of the tour
doesn't need any excuse, but I have to concede the point; would A Midsummer
Night's Dream work in a parking lot?
III is the fourth in a tetralogy of Shakespearean histories that presented
Elizabethan audiences with the background to their royal house. It shows
the end of the War of the Roses, which had the families of York and Lancaster
fighting for the crown. Richard is a deformed Duke of Gloucester on the
York side with royal ambitions, and when the play opens, his brother Edward
IV is king. Richard kills both Edward and his other brother, George, leaving
himself in line for the crown; he's already killed his nephew, Prince
Edward, in order to get at his nephew's wife, Lady Anne. ("Was ever woman
in this humour wooed?" he famously says.) He becomes Richard III for a
while until Henry, Earl of Richmond -- a Lancaster -- marshals an army
to free England from his reign and at last marries a daughter of the house
of York, joining "the white rose and the red" into a new House of Tudor,
and bringing peace to England. The Earl of Richmond becomes Henry VII,
who grandfathered Elizabeth I. So this was recent history for Shakespeare,
making it not just emotional for his audience but also much easier to
Shotgun Players do it without props or regular costumes. The only frill
is an oil drum pounded for dramatic effect. Michael Storm plays a seething,
violent Richard, with a nimble feel for the rise and fall of anger in
his lines. His monologues are the strongest, but the vicious bickering
with Lady Anne and other members of the court is also powerful. Marin
Van Young, though, plays Lady Anne with almost no subtlety, screaming
at Richard out of grief rather than letting the emotion steam up with
a quiet heat, and to me all the scenes that don't work in this production
are the same way: noisy when they should be dark and intense. A deaf woman,
Antoinette Abbamonte, plays the witchlike Queen Margaret. She signs most
of her lines and has to be interpreted out loud by another player, but
her body is so expressive that the role is fascinating. Since most of
the actors play more than one character, and since the costumes are so
fluid, it's not easy to tell the cast apart without a script, but the
show is self-respecting and strong, and so involving by the end you forget
you're sitting in a parking lot.
Weekly, May, 3 1998
already a Bay Area perennial, blossoms in June during Gay Pride month.
Among the most promising entries thus far are the local debut of the international
hit Burning Blue, and the Shotgun Players' production of Martin Sherman's
Bent. Blue, written by former naval flier D.M.W. Greer, is the
story of four male pilots whose close-knit friendship becomes the target
of a homosexual witch hunt conducted by the military brass. (The time
is recent, just prior to Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise.)
A night in a Hong Kong disco sets the probe in motion, although sexuality
is merely a catalyst in the drama's keen exploration of love, honor, and
brutality. The play, lavished with awards and critical praise, sold out
houses in London, Johannesburg, and L.A., and actor Kevin Otto, who starred
in the L.A. and Johannesburg shows, reprises his role as Lt. Dan Lynch
in the local production, joined by other international cast members and
guided by L.A.-London director John T. Hickok. Bent, meanwhile,
first opened on Broadway in 1979, where it was greeted with a kind of
collective shocked disbelief. It's hard to imagine now, but before gay
history had found the kind of audience it has today, Sherman's account
of gays being persecuted during the Holocaust and the homoerotic element
in the concentration camps was a widely unheard-of war story.