In the span of 24 hours, a lot of things can change.
Just ask Akiva Fox, who recently found himself before a crowd of 60 Shakespeare fans wearing a golden crown.
Tall and dark-haired, Fox originally had a behind-the-scenes role as director of the Underground Shakespeare Company’s spring show, “Richard II,” but last minute cast changes now threw him into the spotlight.
“I’m a senior now and I was one of the founders of the Company, so it’s nice that I got to direct for my last year,” said Fox. “I didn’t exactly count on the whole playing Richard II though.”
“We were forced to recast the role yesterday evening,” said Nigel Caplan, one of the show’s stars and program designer. “Akiva very nobly volunteered to learn the part.”
On the eve of the play’s premiere, a bleary-eyed Fox was diligently practicing his lines. A couple of his fellow actors stuck around for moral and coaching support, but at “about 4 or 5 in the morning, they gave up,” said Fox.
This kind of adventure is not unusual, we discovered, when attending student productions, which, by the way, are open to faculty and staff. We were not disappointed this time, for learn the part Fox did, having to ask for a line from producer Brad Pennington only once.
Fox said that he, of all the cast members, found learning the role easiest. “One thing you automatically do as a director is learn the play very well, just from the repetition.” Having acted in 17 other performances also helped.
“Richard II,” a tragic tale of murder, revenge and deceit, premiered at the Rooftop Lounge of Harnwell House on Thursday, Feb. 21. No formal platform or velvet curtains marked the stage. If you push the couches in your living room to the side and dim the lights, you recreate the setting.
For those unfamiliar with the play, such as first time viewer Elena Avramov who said, “I never heard of ‘Richard II,’” prepare for a performance which endures twists and turns. Spanning three continents, the play begins in England, which is demonstrated by a brown cloth laid on the floor. As scenes switch to Ireland, the color of the cloth changes too—to blue during the travels, and then to green when the characters reach Ireland. A clever way to travel to different countries given the company’s low budget, and another example of creative coping by the company.
But while you may admire Shakespeare’s Richard II for his extensive travels and grand English castle, don’t envy his life, which is characterized by lies, attacks, a sad departure from his queen and the loss of his crown. Count the expressions of hatred which float across the actors’ faces and the anger with which they bite out their Shakespearean lines and you get the picture.
During intermission, in which Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and refreshments were given out, we mingled with the Company’s loyal following. Some thought the play more inspiring than others, who fought sleepy eyes as soon as they hit the comfy couches. Avramov managed to resist the lure of soft cushions and said, “I was pleasantly surprised by the play and actors’ performances.”
Exiting Harnwell House at around 11 p.m., we were left with an image of fading lights and the death of a devious yet emotional king. Opening-night jitters and last minute cast changes didn’t prevent another solid performance by the Underground Shakespeare Company, which had treated us to a compilation of scenes from Shakespeare’s works just last semester.
Want to join Penn’s local talent? Fox said the Underground Shakespeare Company, which has more than 40 members, welcomes anyone—including faculty and staff—affiliated with the Penn community. Too shy for the limelight? Come as an audience member. The Company plans a night of Shakespearean scenes this coming April. Or try one of Penn’s many other student performances. Check out “What’s On” for the current performances.
Originally published on March 7, 2002