Historians may argue about whether the real Richard III of England was as villainous as Shakespeare painted him in his eponymous play.
But no one can dispute the dramatic power of the character and the play, next onstage at Lumina Studio Theatre.
Director Alexander Monsell sets “Richard III” not in the 16th century when the historical events actually occurred, but in a post-apocalyptic time in the future. Humanity has undergone an unnamed catastrophe – possibly a flu epidemic or nuclear disaster – and is living underground in a bunker.
King Edward V rules peacefully over whoever’s left, but Richard, deformed and resentful he isn’t a successor to the throne, is restless.
He suffers from a certain kind of greed, said Monsell – the inability to feel he has enough power, which leads the society to physical and moral degradation.
“I made a specific choice, to bottle things, to take the entire plot and set it in a microcosm,” Monsell said. “Being in a bunker heightens the stakes. But I also didn’t want the setting to overpower the piece.”
Lumina Studio Theatre’s mission is to provide opportunities for young actors of any level of experience to perform Shakespeare, other plays of the classical repertory theater and modern plays that focus on the beauty of language.
The 27 cast members range in age from 8 to 16. Because of the many people whose deaths Richard brings about, Monsell wanted to assure the parents of middle schoolers in the cast there’s no blood and no explicit violence.
He has also cut some of Shakespeare’s play – what he called “trimming the fat” – but kept the most vital parts, he said.
Two alternating casts, called RED and BLUE, are used in different performance.
The title role in the BLUE cast has gone to Sarah McKinzie, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School who has been involved with Lumina for eight years.
“It’s a huge part of my life,” she said. “It’s my creative outlet – a unique way to create.”
McKinzie said she also appreciates the close-knit nature of Lumina’s program, which “really builds a family,” in her words.
She calls “Richard III” “a fascinating play” and said Monsell is “doing an amazing job.”
Gender considerations aside, McKinzie admits she hoped to be cast in the role of Richard since it is most interesting to play a villain.
“It’s interesting to think about what drives someone to be evil and mad with power,” she said. “After society has broken down and is trying to rebuild, he is destroying everything.”
“Richard lays in wait for a long time (to bring about his plans), so we can wonder about his intentions,” Monsell said. “Yet, he tells us in his first monologue that if he won’t be a lover, he’ll tear everything down.”
McKinzie had so far read only Romeo and Juliet among Shakespeare’s works, but her father has assembled a library about the playwright that whetted her curiosity.
What has she found most difficult about playing Richard? It’s the fact, she said, that “people who think of evil doesn’t’ expect the amount of subtlety in his motives. He goes back and forth, and remains fascinating.”
The RED cast performs May 1 and May 12 at 1 p.m. and on May 3- 4 at 7 p.m.
The BLUE cast performances are on May 4-5 at 1 p.m. and May 10-11 at 7 p.m.
All performances are at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, downtown Silver Spring. For information, call 301-565-2281. www.luminastudio.org.
For tickets, visit wwwbrownpapertickets.com.