Twisted Richard/Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Twisted Richard/Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World 

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Blue Rider Theatre


at Cafe Voltaire

"I'm ready to talk about my Uncle Richard," Elizabeth confides to the audience. The young daughter of King Edward IV doesn't actually appear in Shakespeare's Richard III, but she has plenty to say in Tim Fiori's neat modern-dress adaptation, Twisted Richard, at the Blue Rider Theatre.

Elizabeth takes the stage at intervals throughout Fiori's streamlined retelling of the villainous Richard's efforts to gain the crown, even at the cost of his own brothers, their various offspring, and other hapless bystanders. She speaks, in modern-day terms, of the Uncle Richard who always paid attention to her, gave her a pony on her fifth birthday, granted her every request. Except for that time, just after her father died, when Richard went to pick up her two brothers at the airport and wouldn't let her come along . . . Funny thing, Uncle Richard putting the two boys in the tower "for safekeeping." "What's safe about that place?" Elizabeth wonders naively.

With Elizabeth's monologues Fiori attempts to shed some light on Richard's motivations; however, Richard's character soon overshadows any such endeavor. Fiori doesn't genuinely explore whether Richard's physical deformities are a manifestation of his inner evil (as Olivier had it), or whether others' attitudes toward his deformities caused him to become a moral outcast (as the Royal Shakespeare Company's Ian McKellan played it). Elizabeth speaks in passing of Richard's rage, "the rage of being different," and says that she understands it.

We believe her, because Elizabeth is played with warm intelligence by the diminutive Tekki Lomnicki, an actress who deals gracefully and unself-consciously with her own dwarfism. Seeing her, we realize that Richard's rage is out of all proportion to his handicaps--humped back, withered arm, shortened leg, and all. Elizabeth is most effective as a device to pull Richard out of the mists of history and into modern times. Here, he can pause in plotting the downfall of young Elizabeth's family long enough to hand her a Tootsie Pop and rumple her hair gently; we see a man who will not only gull a child but enjoys doing it, a molester of innocence. Never mind how he got that way--Richard is fascinating.

Except for Elizabeth's monologues, Fiori's adaptation remains fairly true to Shakespeare's text. Speeches are juggled, condensed, or cut, and characters are consolidated. The bare bones of the plot emerge sharply and are shaped imaginatively. Under the direction of Fiori and Beverly Brumm, King Edward (Joe Coffey) and his clan are a touchy modern-day royal family in tuxes and debutant gowns, followed about by camera crews and communicating via cellular phone. The deposed Queen Margaret (Karen Vaccaro) is portrayed as an actual sorceress, swathed in miles of burlap, bones hanging around her neck as she chants her curses continuously in a corner.

As played by Fiori, Richard takes great glee in his own misshapen self and the mischief of which he's capable. Fiori handles Shakespeare's language effortlessly, making certain that the audience understands Richard's intentions quite clearly even if his victims do not. It's impossible to tell if it's by Fiori's design, but his Richard has an effeminate streak that brings an edge of comedy to his rants--when Richard is angry he's not only dangerous but a real bitch on wheels. With one crippled hand pressed to his heart in a constant gesture of false obeisance, he glides gracefully through his intrigues; at one point he breaks the neck of an adversary with his good arm, proving himself as physically capable as he is mentally alert. Here's a man who will not let two or three trifling handicaps get in his way. Here's a man who can seduce a woman whose husband and father-in-law he only lately killed.

Anne's seduction is beautifully played, rendered believable by the fact that she's mourning the deaths of her loved ones unattended but for a nearly empty bottle of vodka. Dead drunk, she's easy to confuse and less likely to resist Richard's protestations of love and repentance. Patricia Duff's Anne has a face like an open wound; reaching up and out of Richard's embrace as though she were allowing herself to drown, she moves through the rest of the play as an elegant somnambulist.

Perhaps the best moment comes near the end when Richard watches the murder of the two princes on eight-millimeter film. This terrifying snuff film, with its touch of grisly humor (one of the boys is strangled out of frame and we see only his feet kicking in midair), works on several of the levels that Richard is most comfortable with. It's sick, it's ruthless, and it's funny. So is Twisted Richard, when it's not on the false track of psychological motivation.

Scooter Thomas is the sort of character bound to show up in any bittersweet tale of youthful friendship. He's the kid with the most imagination and the biggest chip on his shoulder. He's the adventuresome spirit flying in the face of authority, the troublemaker with grand but vague ambitions. The wiseass who is really terribly vulnerable, as only his best friend knows.

At the beginning of Scooter Thomas Makes It to the Top of the World, dull but successful Dennis Wright (Brian Baker) is preparing to attend the funeral of his longtime friend, the rebellious Scooter Thomas (Brad Nelson Winters), who has fallen off a mountaintop. Or perhaps he jumped off. That would be just like Scooter. There follows an hour's worth of reminiscing as Dennis conjures up the deceased and they reenact the high and low points of their friendship, dwelling unceasingly on Scooter's restless, imaginative spirit.

Whether he's employing a peashooter in junior high or driving drunkenly along the edge of a cliff, it's plain that Scooter is incorrigible and unhappy, unable to find an outlet except in self-destructive behavior. It's plain because playwright Peter Parnell hammers the point home unforgivably. Scooter sees metaphors for his unrealized potential everywhere, and his cries for help are obvious to the dullest of us (he pretends to be drowning in Dennis's dorm room one stoned afternoon). Discussing his fascination with Pompeii, he delivers the line "I'm into ruins" with a straight face.

Winters and Baker do their best, under Paul Frellick's rather mundane direction, emoting left and right as the script would seem to prescribe. But neither of them has the elan to push this commonplace, heavy-handed play to the top of the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven E. Gross.


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