Manitoba·REVIEW

Am I Not King? a spectacular Shakespeare, rock 'n' roll mash-up

Take a not-terribly-well-known Shakespeare play, a popular Winnipeg art-pop band, a few of the city’s finest actors and blend liberally with modern speech. What do you get? Remarkably dynamic theatre, as it turns out.

Royal Canoe and zone41 theatre team up for a wildly inventive retelling of Richard II

Tom Keenan (centre) stars in Am I Not King? The Last Concert of Richard 2, a brilliantly inventive adaptation of Shakespeare's play with music by the Winnipeg band Royal Canoe. (Mairen Kops)

Take a not-terribly-well-known Shakespeare play, a popular Winnipeg art-pop band, a few of the city's finest actors and blend liberally with modern speech. What do you get? Remarkably dynamic theatre, as it turns out.

But is Am I Not King? The Last Concert of Richard 2 really theatre, or a musical or a rock opera? All of the above, none of the above and somewhere in between. Director/adapter Christopher Brauer describes it as "a sort of live concept album," and that's about as fitting a description as any.

Am I Not King? is an invigorating blend of rock concert, play, musical theatre and 'live concept album.' (Mairen Kops)
Brauer has started with Shakespeare's Richard II, the tale of the tyrannical king and his deposition by his cousin Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV, for those keeping score at home).

Elements of the original text are kept, with some scenes moved around and large chunks excised entirely. But Richard (played by Tom Keenan) also often speaks directly to us in modern speech (very modern indeed — I don't recall as many F-bombs in the original).

It can sometimes be jarring, but it places Richard in our world as much as Shakespeare's. He is modern and antique, one of us and alien.

And this underscores the central theme of Richard II — if a king rules by divine right and mortals decide he is no longer king, what is he? Is he not still, as divinely decreed, a king? And if not, then what?

This production (presented by local indie theatre company zone41 theatre) itself defies easy description, since it's as much rock concert as theatre.

Tom Keenan leads a cast who turn in remarkable performances in Am I Not King? (Mairen Kops)
Keenan and Matt Peters, of local Juno-nominated band Royal Canoe, have penned tunes that form the spine of the show. With intriguing video projections from designer jaymez, the show sometimes resembles a live music video as much as anything else.

The lyrics to Keenan's and Peters' songs are sometimes direct lifts from the original text of Richard II, sometimes more "inspired by."

Beautifully performed by the six-member cast and the six members of Royal Canoe, the songs range from haunting, atmospheric ballads to soulful pop tunes to anthemic rockers. They're accessible though complex tunes, and whether you've come for the music or the Shakespeare, you likely won't leave disappointed.

The cast includes relative newcomer Montana Lehmann (impressive as Richard's young queen), Shakespeare in the Ruins veteran Arne MacPherson, Rainbow Stage mainstay Simon Miron and Sarah Constible, who too rarely gets to show off her stunning singing voice — and all turn in outstanding performances.

Am I Not King?, starring Rylan Wilkie (seated) and Tom Keenan, is a beautifully executed Shakespeare adaptation that's not to be missed, says theatre reviewer Joff Schmidt. (Mairen Kops)
Keenan plays Richard almost boyishly, making him a petulant king who seems willing to quickly and easily surrender the throne when he feels winds of change blowing. But like a child whose favourite toy has been taken away, he just as quickly decides he's actually unwilling to let the crown go — either figuratively or literally.

He brings a playful humour to the role, with plenty of comic asides to the audience. But he also mines the tragedy in Richard, a man whose world is crumbling beneath him.

Former Winnipegger Rylan Wilkie provides a worthy match as Bolingbroke, with a graceful performance that shows the character's nobility while also hinting at the steel of the future Henry IV.

Brauer calls his 130-minute (with intermission) show "an experiment in form." And in some respects, its disparate parts shouldn't work together as brilliantly as they do.

But call it what you will — rock concert, play, musical theatre, live concept album — Am I Not King? is invigorating, inventive and not to be missed.

Am I Not King? The Last Concert of Richard 2 runs at the West End Cultural Centre until Dec. 18.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

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