Correction: An actor in the photograph of Earl of Richmond was incorrectly identified. The actor playing the role is Bennett Frohock.
Brad Speck admits it: He's sort of a Bard-shaped burr under the saddle of the Denton Community Theatre production board.
"You know I'm always on them to do Shakespeare," Speck said on Tuesday night, before he sent more than 30 actors — some of them in real suits of armor — to their places on the Campus Theatre stage.
Speck is at the helm of the company's latest Shakespeare staging, Richard III, which opens on Friday. And for Speck, one of the reasons he wanted to take on one of Shakespeare's longest plays — both history and drama — was a matter of a rather small scene.
"I've always had problems with the way productions are done, even good productions, especially the seduction of Anne." Speck said.
Richard III tells the shadowy, venomous story of Richard's rise to the throne and his short time to wear the crown. He hits the stage telling the audience he knows he's not royal in appearance. He's an ugly hunchback who must rely on his guile and his ambition to score any power.
As if to prove the pact he's made with the audience, Richard's first order of business is to accost Anne Neville on her way to bury King Henry VI. He means to convince Anne he dispatched Henry and her husband — Prince Edward — so he might take Edward's place.
"It's always been done very tongue-in-cheek," Speck said. "I wanted to do something different than that. Richard is a con artist. But I wanted him to be a good con artist. I'm really trying to make him a really good con artist. I want the women in the audience to understand why Anne decides to marry him."
Speck shortened Richard III for the Campus Theatre stage. The drama depicts Richard's seizing of the crown after the Wars of the Roses, and how the deformed king is haunted by his bloody schemes.
People who avoid history might find the play a chore to follow, a reality Speck heads off with a brief introduction to the Plantagenets, the royal family that fell into spectacular in-fighting. Both the House of York and the House of Lancaster were descendants of the Plantagenets, but they were as fractious as the Bible's Cain and Abel.
Actors said the play is driven by Shakespeare's writing, rather than spectacle.
"This is a heavily language-driven show," said Misha Stevens, a veteran of Shakespearean productions who plays the role of Queen Margaret, banished widow of Henry VI. "You have to keep that foremost in your mind. If you don't have the language, you can't tell the story."
Chance Gibbs, who plays the title role, agreed.
"I'd say diction and voice are the biggest part of this show," he said. "It's the most demanding show I've ever done as far as voice, body and emotion are concerned."
Gibbs said Richard is a rare chance for an actor to play a bad guy, but without relying on gimmicks.
"Playing a villain is fun, but you don't just come on stage, ruin lives and leave. You have to have to find the parts of the character that are deeper than that. He's convinced God chose him for this," Gibbs said.
Stevens said playing a villain isn't as simple as sneering and conniving.
"You have to go into the character's back story and find something that makes them empathetic," she said.
The play is full of political scheming, and the drama depicts royal power as fragile as it is potent. Rachael Dawson plays the role of Elizabeth, the Queen of Edward IV.
"The females in this play have little agency of their own," Dawson said. "Elizabeth has clawed her way up to queen and she wants to keep that status. Her husband is dying, but she's given him sons. She's done her part, but she knows that's not a guarantee."
Speck's direction gives full weight to the Shakespearean language. The company has kept the Bard's verse, but Speck has directed the actors to be more conversational in delivery. In staging Richard III, Speck often staggers chorus lines of actors (most of whom stare or glare in the audience's direction) between a huge, two-story set. The players deliver their lines mostly to the house. Some scenes draw the players together in conspiratorial huddles and occasional bursts of aggression. For the most part, Speck telegraphs mistrust and self-preservation through chilly spaces between characters. Even when talk turns to high-stakes deal making, Speck has his actors keep their distance.
Speck also is proud of the suits of armor the company bought for the play. (After the show closes, the suits are for sale for $750 each, he said.)
"You don't see the armor until Act 5, but I'm pretty proud of it," Speck said. "We done a lot of modifying to fit the armor to the actors. Added some straps here and there. We're going to have guys in chain mail and armor. That's not something you get to do often."
Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 10-11 and Thursday through Saturday, Nov. 16-18. Matinee performances are 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12 and 19.
Tickets cost $22 for adults, $18 for ages 62 and older, $15 for students and $10 for ages 12 and younger. For reservations, visit www.dentoncommunitytheatre.com or call 940-382-1915.