‘Richard 2012’ questions election

“Richard 2012” will bring election rhetoric to the stage for the next two weekends.
“Richard 2012” will bring election rhetoric to the stage for the next two weekends. Photo by McKay Nield.

“If you care about America, you care about this” reads the tagline of the second theatrical senior project this year.

“Richard 2012 or The Body Politic: An Election Event Conceived and Performed by Alex Kramer, Charlie Polinger and Raphael Shapiro, based on Shakespeare’s Richard II and the 2012 US Presidential Campaign” opens Friday at the Whitney Theater and has performances scheduled for the next two weekends. The three seniors collaborated on the script, using text from Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and rhetoric from presidential campaign speeches, debates, newscasts and attack ads.

The show’s two production weekends frame the presidential election on Nov. 6, and the script is likely to change based on the results, Director Charlie Polinger ’13 said.

“It’s incredibly specific to this space and time,” Raphael Shapiro ’13 explained, adding that by living in a culture saturated with the election, the audience has “been preparing to see this show for as long as we’ve been working on it.”

The show’s constantly evolving script is based loosely on the events of the unfolding presidential campaign, Polinger said. Even the candidates’ responses to Hurricane Sandy will play a role in the show.

“Richard 2012” is a two-man show, with Kramer and Shapiro filling all the parts, which are loosely grouped into “Incumbent” or “Challenger” roles. The two will embody not only Obama, Romney and their Shakespearean equivalents, but also everyone related to them, from Michelle Obama and Ann Romney to minor characters from the original play.

Theater Studies professor Deborah Margolin, one of the show’s advisors, described the script as a “collage” that “gracefully yet jarringly” brings together the two narratives.

Both in its use of previously written text and devised theater technique — where actors create the script through experimentation — “Richard” is a departure from most theater done at Yale, Polinger said. Most undergraduate productions polish an existing script instead of building each moment from scratch, he explained. For “Richard,” on the other hand, the team often spent an hour testing out different versions of a single exchange or action.

Billed as an “election event” rather than a play, the show falls more into the category of performance art than traditional theater, Margolin said.

“In classical theater, what we try to do is disappear inside a character,” Margolin said. “Here there’s a translucence between actor and character … and a conversation going on [between the two] that is inherently political.”

This aspect of the production was informed by Thomas Hobbes’ political treatise “The Leviathan,” in which he describes the masses coming together to make up a single leader, Polinger said. Similarly, in today’s political discourse, just two individual presidential candidates are imagined to represent the entire American constituency, Shapiro explained.

“We’re putting all our hopes and dreams in Obama and Romney, as if they’re going to take the country and drive it somewhere … we put a bit of ourselves in the ballot when we go to vote,” Shapiro said.

Despite its political subject matter, the creators emphasized that the show does not have a partisan message.

“It’s not trying to make a statement about Democrats and Republicans … but about what it means to be a political figure, about how the election is almost becoming a fiction itself,” Polinger said.

“Richard II” is Shakespeare’s only play to portray a peaceful transition of power, which makes for a particularly striking parallel with the current election, Shapiro said, calling each presidential election a “non-violent coup.”

But the show’s use of Shakespeare might surprise audiences, Shapiro said. The “flashy,” public moments of the show are all sound bites from the presidential campaign, while the Shakespearean text provides “a way of becoming more natural,” and is spoken mostly during the characters’ soliloquies or informal exchanges, Shapiro said. That the characters are speaking two different languages throughout the show reflects how politicians today are forced into “a performance of the genuine,” he added.

Kramer explained that while Shakespeare is often seen as “refined” and untouchable today, “Richard” will treat the text more loosely, cutting up some parts while mashing others together.

“Shakespeare in his day was a very base theatrical form: he wrote to the masses, and the masses understood it,” Kramer said.

Because “Richard” is one of only three senior projects this semester, the team had the unusual opportunity of having an entire month to spend rehearsing in the Whitney Humanities Center’s Whitney Theater — the site of all senior shows — instead of the week shows usually receive, Polinger said.

Kramer said that nearly always rehearsing in the performance space is “unheard of,” and allowed the show to be much more ambitious in design and scale than other productions, Polinger said.

Despite the three seniors’ lengthy preparation for the show, Kramer said “Richard 2012” will begin to lose its relevance just weeks after the election.

“It exists for us now, it won’t engage for anyone else ever again in quite this way,” he said. “Theater is so transient, it gets to do that.”

But Margolin said she disagrees, explaining that the questions raised in the show will continue to grow only increasingly relevant “in this age, where elections can be bought, where the power of wealth and money are becoming a threat to democracy.”

“Richard 2012” is a theater studies senior project for Kramer and Polinger, and an American studies senior project for Shapiro and will run at the Whitney Theater Nov. 2 to 4 and Nov. 8 to 10.

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