Frame your face for all occasions! What is more miserable than discontent? For now is the winter of our discontent, though it be but the first day of autumn, and Analog Players will trade its kingdom for your horse if your horse be but, in fact, a butt in a seat inside the Yellow Sign Theatre as you attend His Majestic Lump of Foul Deformity. Written and Directed by Alex Hacker, this meta-theatrical endeavor transcends the realm of the theatre by delving deep into the world of Richard III by way of stage actor Junius Brutus Booth. Traversing the largely unexplored terrain of performance potential when it comes to this historical figure and his relationship with the stage, Hacker develops a cross-sectional of Booth’s career and mobilizes it with the Shakespearean vehicle of the Bard’s gruesome history-tragedy involving the disfigured tyrant.
A world of praise is to be heaped upon the outside collaborator from whom the surprisingly pleasing costume collection is provided. Lowbrow arts are often approached from a monetarily derelict aesthetic; the regal yet simple sartorial selections featured therein showcase a splash of flavor as well as a nod to the roots of the production on the whole. Costumer Eileen Keefe has taken a handful of garments, which best befit the half dozen characters played by the playwright, and transformed them into togs worthy of a second glance. The headdresses in particular are worthy of note— be it crown, paltry cap, or sequined crown-pointed wimple— each one giving a vivid life to the varying characters.
In addition to the carefully collected costumery, this production sees the revival of Yellow Sign Theatre’s “Bookmail”, a fashion plate of armor composed of books, which made its debut in another of Hacker’s productions— This Bird Has Flown— circa 2012. Designed initially by Baltimore-based artist Douglas Johnson, the Bookmail is the perfect fit for the battlefield scene that encompasses the final few moments of the production. Working with this novelty accessory, both Hacker and his stage comrade Scott Burke find themselves nimbly fleet of foot for the sword play that spans the show’s conclusion. A nod of praise herein is deserved as well for the slow-motion capture of these steel-blade exchanges and the well-oiled tightness of their execution.
While the performance is delivered with a great deal of compassion from both Burke and Hacker, the downfall to the show lies within the bosom of its own limitations. Hacker, who is invested in the production as playwright, adaptor, deviser, and multi-character performer, is married intimately to the work, failing to push himself to the fullest potential of his acting capability. Though there are moments where his portrayal of Flynn, JBB’s ‘manager’ and liberally abused friend, is intentionally aloof and detached from the meta-Shakespearean moments, there is also an unintentional disconnect here that could be vanquished and allow the performance as a whole to flourish further under the direction of another. This is not to say that Hacker’s direction is not sufficient for the performance, he’s particularly skilled in evoking strong reactions from his stage counterpart, Scott Burke.
The concept that Hacker has developed is a sturdy one, though its consistency wavers somewhere near the show’s end. Finding a sturdy balance between moments where the pair are Junius Brutus Booth and Flynn versus where they are active characters inside Richard III is a juggling act that is initially well met in a fashion that gives the play an even pacing and a firmly grounded reality. This balance falls away from itself in the latter part of the performance and although the gearshift at the top of the second act feels organic, the relationship previously developed between these two opposing forces of presence and reality feels somewhat less so as the play finishes.
Hacker’s ability to add colors to the chameleon that is Shakespeare’s revolting tragedy, through the lens of Junius Brutus Booth and his chum Flynn, is somewhat floral if not entirely poetic in its essence. The effeminate Flynn, as played by Hacker, showcases an active struggle to not only wrangle the madness that is witnessed in fits and spurts with Junius Brutus Booth but to live with a passive subservience ever present in this character’s existence. The tragic downfall of wishing to change Shakespeare or change history pulsates through Hacker’s Flynn in an almost romantic fashion, which flirts mischievously with the relationship between Flynn and Booth. Developing and undercurrent of subtext to each of his ‘in-play’ characters, Hacker as Flynn imbues the men and women he portrays with a certain reluctant femininity. This is particularly true of the scenes that feature the young princes, which by way of spoiling their surprise there can be little else said on the matter.
Fully aware of the fact that Junius Brutus Booth is the most despicable and deplorable despot to ever set foot onto a stage, Scott Burke adapts himself well to the outlandish and borderline beastly nature of the character. Abusive to Flynn, particularly in the scenes with Lady Ann and Richard’s Mother, Burke’s Booth plunges through a series of truculent fits, each one of which peels back a layer of the foul deformity that infects the character’s soul. There is something to be said both for the mindful presence that Burke achieves on the stage as Booth playing Richard; this is not so unlike an homage to Inception with the layers of character that are presented. There is a startling contrast between the rages of war and paranoia verses the moments of rooted insecurity that manifest in the character (both Junius and Richard) throughout the play.
Burke and Hacker play exceedingly well off one another, sharing a convivial rapport, which allows the show to move swiftly forward. Hacker carefully covers costume changes by drawing out of the meta-world whenever he’s forced to vanish from the stage, providing Flynn’s commentary on what was previously witnessed. Their working camaraderie is a well-oiled cog in this bizarrely intriguing contraption, and speaks volumes of their ability to read one another both in scene and out of context.
Let not their babbling dreams affright your souls, take up arms (and a drink or two) and attend His Majestic Lump of Foul Deformity currently in residence at The Yellow Sign Theatre. Richard III can only die but so many times before that too takes its toll upon the actors, so best be cautious and reserve your tickets now.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission
His Majestic Lump of Foul Deformity opens on September 23, 2016 with The Analog Players and runs through October 2, 2016 at The Yellow Sign Theatre— 1726 N. Charles Street in the Station North Arts District of Baltimore, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door and in advance online.
To read the interview with Scott Burke and Alex Hacker, click here.