CROOK BACK DICKY: A PUNK ROCK OPERA BUFFO adapted from Shakespeare by Adrian Griffin, Dean Gabourie and Keith Knight, directed by Gabourie. Presented by Acme at the Royal St.George (120 Howland). July 6 at 10 pm, July 7 at 3 pm, July 9 at 5 pm, July 10 at 4:30 pm, July 11 at 8:15 pm, July 12 at 1:45 pm, July 14 at 7 pm. 416-967-1528.
RICHARD 3, QUEENS 4 (THE DEADLY GAME) adapted from Shakespeare and directed by Jennifer Parr. Presented by Vagabond Knight and Richard III Project at the George Ignatieff (15 Devonshire). July 7 at 10:30 pm, July 9 at 3:30 pm, July 10 at 9 pm, July 12 at 4:15 pm, July 13 at 1:45 pm, July 14 at 9:45 pm, July 16 at 1 pm. 416-967-1528. Rating: NNNNN
This year's Fringe offers a striking chance to see Shakespeare's Richard Three times two.
What's not to find dramatically fascinating in the hunchbacked Machiavellian who murders his way to the throne of England?
As the Bard wrote him, the memorable figure of Richard the Third may not be historically accurate - the real Richard was actually a pretty good ruler - but he sure holds an audience.
The chameleon-like Richard finds even more colours in two festival productions. In Acme Theatre's Crook Back Dicky, he's cast as a punk hero who metaphorically moons the society that produced him.
In Richard 3, Queens 4, presented by Vagabond Knight and the Richard III Project, the conniver confronts the four key women whom he initially fools but who eventually best him. And to give an extra spin to this Richard, he's played by a woman.
"That idea came from director Jennifer Parr, who wanted to see what would happen if we took the men out of the play and explored the female characters," explains Françoise Balthazar, who plays Richard. "They're usually cut or shortened in production, and we wanted to explore how they relate to Richard and how they shape his behaviour."
The four are his mother, his sister-in-law, a vengeful deposed queen and his future wife. In Shakespeare, Richard woos that last character over the corpse of her husband, whom Richard has killed.
"He's smarter than anyone else around, which is one of the things that's attractive about him," continues Balthazar, who impressed Fringe audiences last year as another historic figure, Lucrezia Borgia. "He's deformed, has lost his father, is rejected by his mother and ridiculed by society, but he takes all that pain and flips it around to his advantage.
"Richard's psychotic, and I hope to take audiences into that psychosis - to get into his mind and see why he behaves as he does. Thematically, our piece is about Richard's ego at war with Richard's soul.
"His killing becomes addictive, and he can't get away from the thrill it gives him even when he becomes king. It's the only way he can keep his piece of the pie forever."
There's psychological exploration in Crook Back Dicky, too. Performer Adrian Griffin and director Dean Gabourie considered doing it as a solo show because of the original's powerful monologues, but needed a hook.
"Then I saw The Filth And The Fury, the documentary about the Sex Pistols," recalls Griffin, "and learned that Johnny Rotten had stage fright and needed a persona to get up there and do it. He chose Richard III. Dean suggested that image as the throughline for our show, with touches of the Clash's Joe Strummer thrown in."
Their adaptation, set in the last hour of the character's life, draws on segments of Shakespeare's Henry VI as well as Richard III. And, of course, the creators have woven in some punk songs.
"Our Richard believes that you either become a power or are crushed by another's. A lot of 70s punk philosophy had to do with intentionally making yourself as ugly as possible, reflecting back to society its own hypocrisy.
"What we want to investigate is Richard's ugliness, both inside and outside, and what responsibility society has for making him that way."
As they talk, Balthazar and Griffin find little points in common in their productions. At times, they laugh as they recite Richard's lines in unison. Coincidentally, actor Margaret Lamarre plays the vengeful Margaret in both shows, live with Balthazar and on voice tape with Griffin.
Both actors point out that Margaret, like most of the major players struggling for the crown in Shakespeare's histories, had blood on her hands.
"They were all opportunists," nods Balthazar. "Richard was just better at it and killed more people, so he's the one who's labelled as evil."