The beats of a different Shakespeare

King Richard III (top) literally holds the throne as “Ricky 3” comes out of Intermission.

By John Lyle Belden

It’s a theme as old as theatre: An ambitious ruler steps on so many people on his way up, that those who aren’t killed make sure he has nothing on the way down, not even a horse. As William Shakespeare wrote such a history of England’s King Richard III, the Tudor lineage that violently dethroned him was in charge. So, no gray area with this character; our central figure not only acts as a villain but gleefully describes himself as one. As for everyone else? Lessons on power, complacency and misplaced trust abound, making this – like much of the Bard’s catalogue – a feature on stages again and again.

Now, we meet the ruthless monarch in “Ricky 3: A Hip Hop Shakespeare Richard III,” presented outdoors by Indianapolis Shakespeare Company, which evolved from the former Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre that held annual Shakespeare in the Park productions.

“IndyShakes” Artistic Director Ryan Artzberger (a familiar face from numerous productions around Indy, including the IRT’s annual “Christmas Carol”) drew from his appreciation of the rhythms of both Shakespeare and Hip-Hop in working with local creatives including Nigel Long, Geechie, and director Mikael Burke, as the long drama was carefully trimmed, then the text’s beats and rhymes matched to carefully curated DJ grooves.

Comparisons to “Hamilton” are unavoidable, but this is not a musical. The flow and beat emphasize the poetry, as well as the nuances of the plot, making the show relatively easy to follow, despite most actors playing various roles. Artzberger notes this is not an “adaptation;” he took care that nearly every line is Shakespeare’s. It is not completely rapped-through, which I found intriguing. Still, I feel that, as a first venture into this melding, it leans more towards respecting the arts going into it than indulging what could be seen as a gimmick.

The classic beauty of the spacious Taggart Memorial Amphitheatre in Riverside Park is juxtaposed by a simple but effective stage design by Sydney Lynn Thomas: a simple metal frame holds the Throne on high, surrounded by black cases that would hold its pieces at breakdown, hinting at the here-today/gone-tomorrow nature of the royals’ reigns. This puts the visual focus on subtle (except moments when it isn’t) and effective lighting by Laura Glover, and the exquisite costumes by Tonie Smith, effectively blending the styles of Africa, Shakespeare-era England, and today’s Urban culture.

I don’t know who Shawnte P. Gaston tapped into to portray Richard, but I don’t want to be that person’s enemy. Imagine the worst anyone lied to your face, manipulated you, had you believing things aren’t as they are, used you for favors and discarded you – all with a big smile – and add the willingness to pay people to poke swords into you. It’s the positive empowered Black woman corrupted in the most tragic manner, and Gaston relishes the ride the whole way. Note that she seems to be this 21st-century female archetype portraying the 15th-century male Duke of Gloucester. The “deformity” of Richard is an allusion to the way a current woman of color may feel disrespected, discarded and ignored.

The rest of the company – LaKesha Lorene, Akili Ni Mali, Chinyelu Mwaafrika, Eric D. Saunders, Kerrington Shorter, Manon Voice, Milicent Wright, and young Quintin Gildon Jr. as the ghost of a murdered prince – acquit themselves very well in various roles. Wright’s powerful speeches as mad ex-queen Margaret sparked spontaneous applause.  

This unique cultural experience is worth your time and the effort to find it at 2441 N. White River Parkway E. Drive, Indianapolis (or north on East Riverside from 16th Street east of the White River, turn left at the park), and no cost at all to attend, though all are required to set up free tickets at indyshakes.com. See the site for details. Performances are Thursday through Saturday, July 28-30, at 8 p.m.

Phoenix goes bananas for ‘Xmas’

By John Lyle Belden

You know, it’s just not Christmas season without a visit from Anna Banana!

..Said no one ever. (But don’t tell Anna!) Now that she’s the fourth-most-popular female holiday icon (since most people can’t think of more than three) she gets to host “A Very Phoenix Xmas 13: Merry Superstitious” at the Phoenix Theatre.

As you can already tell, the oddball tone of the previous 12 incarnations of this holiday tradition is still very much alive. However, this edition — directed by quirky Q Artistry founder Ben Asaykwee — features an all-female cast. Past Phoenix stars Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Phebe Taylor, Jaddy Ciucci and Jenni White are joined by Shawnte P. Gaston, the powerhouse presence of Tiffanie Burnett, the instrumental prowess of Beef & Boards regular Sarah Hund and the manic energy of ComedySportz star Frankie Bolda.

While they all play multiple roles, it’s Bolda in the banana outfit, and Ciucci makes a feisty Virgin Mary. But while the comedy is a bit irreverent, the content doesn’t get sacrilegious or too mature. Something amiss does happen to Santa, though, that reverberates through the show.

The series of sketches has numerous authors, including Asaykwee, Jean Childers-Arnold, Lou Harry, Steven Korbar,  Zack Neiditch, and Steffi Rubin. Mariel Greenlee choreographed a touching dance scene, performed by the ensemble, inspired by a historic holiday event.

There are also witches, a history lesson, a look back at a (sorta) famous kick-line, breaking news, surprising mashups, and (in Harry’s contribution) what could be described as “Law & Order: Scriptural Victims Unit.” Plus, the cast tell us what’s on their wish list this season.

For an unusual — What other Christmas show has a talking banana? — funny and fully entertaining holiday treat, check out this “Very Phoenix Xmas,” with performances through Dec. 23 on the mainstage at 705 N. Illinois St. in downtown Indianapolis. Call 317-635-7529 or visit phoenixtheatre.org.