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richardthesecond: a nightmare (1997)

richardthesecond: a nightmare
Matthew MacFadzean in
richardthesecond: a nightmare

Matthew MacFadzean

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Toronto actor and playwright Matthew MacFadzean has numerous theatre and television credits to his name, and richardthesecond is gaining recognition as one of his crowning achievements. The play drew immediate critical acclaim with its debut performance at the 2001 Summerworks Festival in Toronto; it won the festival's Juried Prize for Best Production. Since then, the play has been re-staged at Theatre Passe Muraille, the Al Green Theatre, and Harbourfront's York Quay Theatre, and nominated for five Dora Awards.

Like Rick Miller's MacHomer, richardthesecond is a one-actor reworking of Shakespeare through the lens of popular culture--but that's where the similarity ends. Whereas MacHomer stages a comincal and polyvocal parody, richardthesecond draws the audience into a schizoid search for identity and ethics in the simulacrum of postmodernity. The protagonist, Richard Excellent, invites us to "chill" in his presence as he starts spinning a yarn that starts out as a vaguely unreliable plan to do the right thing but unravels into paranoid--or science fictional--vertigo as he begins to wonder what exactly the right thing is.

Excellent prides himself on his adventurous spirit, his knack for partying and storytelling, and his comprehensive collection of video-recorded episodes of MuchMusic's "Electric Circus." But then he discovers about a maverick experiment in human cloning and signs up to be its first guinea pig. Excellent justifies his role as a service to humanity, according to all the Enlightenment stereotypes about the wonder and benefit of science, and exults in his fate with messianic bombast. But then, rather mysteriously, Excellent disappears...   

MacFadzean has developed Excellent's character as a terminally hip raver: he raps, plays with a lightsabre, air-DJs, and rambles on about escapades in mind alteration worthy of Hunter S. Thompson. The now rapid-fire, now languid delivery of Excellent's monologue begins to suggest that it may in fact be chemically enhanced, deepening the unreliability of his narrative. From the "party flyer"-style advertising for the play's first production, to the bass-fat techno soundtrack (mixed live by DJ Iain Miller), to Excellent's baggy garb and street slang, MacFadzean enlists the talents of local underground scenesters like Miller to stage a play exploring some of the tensions that subtend the quintessentially postmodern milieu of the raver: between romantic individualism and ecstatic collectivity; between retreat and revolt; between campy consumerism and the trenchant resistance to selling out; between the sixteen-lane highway of excess and the jittery cynicism found in wisdom's palace.

Ultimately, MacFadzean's spot-on send-up of raver subjectivity opens to question the formation and function of subjectivity as such: as the subject of capital, and even of language itself, where the subject is revealed "an effect mistaking itself for a cause" (Pennee, Donna. Class discussion, U of Guelph. Jan. 2002). Excellent's peripatetic recognition of this mistake marks his entry into a disorienting knowledge of himself as precisely such an effect--not as a speaking subject but as a subject through whom speak a myriad discourses, from New Age millenarianism to Shakespearean soliloquy.

Interestingly, MacFadzean uses his Shakespearean intertext to frame the knowledge Goodtime gains as unequivocally tragic. "What I like most about Shakespeare is that each play mirrors an era, and Richard II seems to be ours," MacFadzean told Now theatre reviewer Jon Kaplan in 2001 (qtd. in "SummerWorks." Now 2-8 Aug. 2001: 53). More detailed production notes published by MacFadzean at the play's promotional web site identify in Richard II's "ineffectual ... dreamer" of a character a strong moral for citizens of "the McWest," fascinated by the strange fruits of technology and capitalist excess, while wilfully oblivious to our "impending environmental shutdown" ("Production Notes." richardthesecond: a nightmare. <>).

MacFadzean has made minor changes to his script for each re-mounting, in order to keep the popular cultural reference points in his "techno-opera" (qtd. in Kaplan) current as a critique of the hyper-mediatization of post-industrial society. Most telling among several such detail-oriented changes was the inclusion, in his 2002 run at Passe Muraille, of numerous references to US foreign policy and media fear-mongering in the wake of 9-11. The message amidst such hectic media manipulations, however, remains more durably relevant than the myriad pop details targeted in its satire.

"I am Richard the Second," Queen Elizabeth is apocryphally reported to have warned Shakespeare on one occasion. If Shakespeare's Richard II presented to the Elizabethan court too lifelike an image of dubious rule and the threat of usurpation, MacFadzean's adaptation implicates its audience in an ecological--and psychological--critique of media and industry, a critique that assumes and sustains an ominous tone of political prophecy.

Mark McCutcheon

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