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Richard III: The Pleasures of Violence

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Tatiana Jennings

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Starring Lee McDonald

At Zuke Studios in Toronto

Two stars

Much Ado About Nothing

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Karen Knox

Starring Tyler Seguin and Helen Juvonen

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At Spadina House in Toronto

Two and a half stars

Richard III is Shakespeare's second-longest play; for proof, look no further than the Kadozuke Kollektif's langourous production currently being staged in a white cube of an art gallery in Toronto.

At Thursday's opening performance, this Richard – subtitled The Pleasures of Violence – kicked off at 7:30 p.m. and didn't end until Jimmy Fallon was well into his opening monologue.

Director Tatiana Jennings's sometimes brilliant, sometimes baffling vision of the play begins with a head-scratcher – a projection of a close-up of the mouth of a man reciting the well-known opening monologue in a British accent, as the actress playing Queen Elizabeth disrobes distractingly in the background.

But this big giant head isn't our Richard. Instead, that proves to be Lee McDonald, a Tony Soprano-shaped fellow settling in for a nap and yawning along to the line about being "determined to prove a villain." Is what follows all Richard's nightmare, as he tosses and turns on the battlefield the night before his defeat?

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Whether Richard is awake or asleep or in some state in between, Jennings's production takes place in a non-realistic, ever-shifting world, where the young actors seem to be both inside the characters and outside of them at the same time – a collection of cartoonish, mumbling monsters.

McDonald aces the style – and makes a wonderfully passive-aggressive Richard. Instead of a physical deformity, he sports a giant, Shakespeare-eating grin cursing Queen Margaret, who collects the personal effects of each killed character in a Ziploc bag and hangs them on the wall like a proud serial killer.

This debauched dreamscape is given a sleek and versatile design by Vladimir Kovalchuk. His set is comprised of 12 interlocking benches of various lengths that can be piled into towers or turned into boardrooms or upended to create corridors with doors like endless, bared teeth. The bench tops are bright white, allowing them to turn into screens for moody projections, while their underbellies are distorted mirrors occasionally aimed at Richard in an attempt to make him grow eyes.

Perhaps the best use of the benches comes when Clarence (the excellent, soulful Tyler Winn), jailed and about to be murdered by his brother Richard's goons, describes a nightmare he had of being knocked overboard from a ship by that same sibling. "Lord, Lord, methought, what pain it was to drown," he says chillingly, as the cell around him dissolves and reforms and turns into precarious planks he must walk and the sound designer Dylan Stavenjord takes us deep underwater.

For all the scenes that submerge us there are equal numbers that merely sink thanks to clumsy choreography, ideas that don't quite coalesce, or pauses that seem tedious rather than purposeful.

Ultimately, Richard III: The Pleasures of Violence doesn't stretch to four hours due to a fixation with performing the whole text – indeed characters like Richmond are entirely disappeared – but due to an exhausting atmosphere of indulgence. Nevertheless, it's hard to write off thanks to memorably off-kilter performances: Lacey Creighton as Lady Anne, led around by Richard on a leash after her unlikely wooing; Scott Edwards and Shawn Lall turning Buckingham and Hastings into a silly-yet-sinister double act; Dave Fish is a mournful, wheelchair-bound King Edward IV.

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Single Thread's production of Much Ado About Nothing has returned to Spadina House, a historic manor near Casa Loma that has been preserved as it was in the 1920s.

As with Richard III, the chief pleasure of this production is in the look – surroundings straight out of Downton Abbey brought to life with Beatrice and Benedick and their entourages as Canadians just home to Toronto from the Great War.

Audience members have roles to play: You are servants seeking employment at the residence of Leonato (Thomas Gough) and are being given a tour of the premises, eavesdropping on the various romantic intrigues as they begin to unfold.

Site-specific, promenade theatre like this sells itself on the illusion of agency and mobility – hey, you're not sitting in a chair in a stuffy, old theatre! In actuality, more often than not, it requires more submission, as you are ordered around like servants not to be seen or heard. Kudos then to this Much Ado, directed by Karen Knox building on an earlier 2011 version, for incorporating this into the overall vision.

Otherwise, the acting is competent, but unexceptional – and the interpretation generally unnoteworthy. Of chief interest is the transformation of evil Don Pedro's henchman Conrad into a woman, making their plotting into a sexual, sadomasochistic game that provides an interesting contrast to the unconscious misogyny of the rest of the characters. But the awful ending, where Hero is "happily" united with a man who treated her like dirt by a father who did the same, is treated without irony, only giggles. A pity, as this is a perfect moment to ask: Why does she stay?

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