The University of Wisconsin’s University Theatre is currently presenting a kabuki-style production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, directed by David Furumoto.  The play aspires to fuse elements of Eastern and Western dramatic performance styles and does so by using the original Shakespearian text mixed with visual elements of kabuki theater. The play’s clear, artistic vision is enhanced by performances by actors such as Daniel Millhouse as Richard and Chelsea Anderson as Queen Margaret.

The production is intensely focused on visuals: a high level of attention to detail proves rewarding in the beautiful contrast and imagery presented on stage. The set features a multilevel stony castle, with many steps that the actors’ elaborate Renaissance-meets-traditional-Japanese-style costumes drape over as they move across the stage. Every actors’ costume is beautifully constructed, with attention to lines, layers, patterns and movement. Fabric is draped and folded expertly in pieces ranging from huge puffy pants, kimono-style sleeves and even tall cloth headpieces. The use of traditional kabuki makeup enhances the costuming: As the play progresses, the audience watches Richard, played by Daniel Millhouse, acquire more and more dark black and blue lines across his face.

Movement is emphasized as well; every actor is intensely aware of the space on the stage and where their costumes move. They’re deliberate in every movement. Stiff poses are held for extended periods of time, and Richard’s limp was made simultaneously jerky and lively. The final scene in the play features fluid choreography by making use of harnesses to achieve flying motions as Richard battles Richmond (played by Kailen Fleck), complemented by flying leaps and aerial somersaults.

The actors themselves prove capable of performing an odd vocal style that features an increase in volume and pitch toward the end of a scene, punctuated by rhythmic floor taps done with a wooden board by an offstage assistant. At first, the noise is intensely loud and unexpected. However, as the play progresses, it emerges as an interesting device used for emphasis.

Millhouse performs the leading role as Richard excellently. He appears completely absorbed in his role, and the audience can easily see — and believe — that he truly is Richard when he is onstage. His performance encompasses many aspects of Richard’s character, such as the character’s physical deformities, occasionally slimy commentary and “plotting evil villain” tendencies. He fluidly moves through scenes by using a varied vocal intensity and emotive facial expressions. When he “flies” across the stage wearing a gaudy blue cape and headpiece, his facial expressions are what made the scene decidedly “creepy,” while dimmed lighting and ominous organ music contribute to this effect.

Anderson performs her separate roles as Queen Margaret and the Duchess of York by using her movements to interpret the emotions of the scene. Her posture reflects the emotions effectively. She also performs the vocal elements of the performance extremely well by varying her pitch and volume while still consistently projecting her speech.

The University Theatre’s production of “Richard III” is a strange yet inspired interpretation of the traditional Shakespearian play. Its artistic vision and attention to visual detail form a solid foundation for strong performances. Together, those elements merged the Eastern and Western influences, resulting in an engaging performance by the cast.

“Richard III” runs through May 3 at Mitchell Theatre in Vilas Hall. Buy tickets here.

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