Friday, August 24, 2012

Richard III - "An acting tour-de-force, and a good production too"

By Judd Hollander

Hypocrisy, thy name is Richard, a truism quickly proved in the absolutely brilliant production of William Shakespeare's Richard III at the Public Theater. Presented by the Public's Mobile Shakespeare Unit, this production is a stripped-down version of the Bard's classic tale, one which has previously toured New York City's jails, homeless shelters and centers for the elderly. Using no set to speak of, with minimal props and lighting, the show leaves the basic story intact, with the strong performances and direction ultimately carrying the day. The show also gets a very important boost from the excellent work by Ron Cephas Jones in the title role.

In not-so-merry England, the multi-generational so-called "War of the Roses" between the houses of Lancaster and York has finally ended, leaving King Edward IV (Kevin Kelly) as ruler. However, Edward's brother Richard (Jones), a valiant warrior in battle and a man deformed in both arm and leg, is not pleased with this outcome and so begins scheming to put himself upon the throne. In short order, he turns the now-ailing Edward against their other brother George Clarence (Miriam A. Hyman), arranges for Clarence to be sent to his death and, upon the King's own passing, has Edward's two young sons (Alex Hernandez, Michelle Beck) murdered; all the while continuing to sew the seeds of discontent among the various members of the court. Richard also finds an ally to his cause in the scheming Duke of Buckingham (Michael Crane), as well as the more toadyish civil servant Catesby (Kelly). Yet for all his machinations, Richard is still not safe. For despite his best efforts, there are those, both living and dead, who continue to defy him. All of which leads to a final confrontation where Richard must not only battle his mortal enemies, but also struggle against the effects of a bitter curse handed down by Queen Margaret (Suzanne Bertish), a formerly banished woman who has returned in the name of revenge.

The conclusion to the Shakespeare history cycle, one which began several plays earlier with Richard II, Richard III is, at its heart, a look at the evilness of man and his ability and ultimate willingness to be corrupted. The work is also a satire on the art of manipulation. Building on themes inherent in the play, Jones imbues his Richard with a liberal dash of black humor, portraying the character as a combination cold-blooded killer and smiling confidence man, someone who freely admits his past sins, all the while surrounding himself with an air of malicious yet somehow attractive hypocrisy. It's this supremely confident and knowing attitude that makes Richard almost endearing to the audience, the character reaching the height of audacity when he dons, at Buckingham's urging, the bearing and attitude of pious and somber fellow, complete with prayer book, while letting himself be "forced" by the Lord Mayor of London (Bertish) and others into accepting the position of King, one which he has not-so-secretly coveted all along.

Jones is also able to mix a strong dose of sensuality into his character, as evident with his scene with Lady Anne (Beck), Richard having slain her husband in battle before the play began. However after explaining that he did this out of his own love for her, Richard is able to reduce Anne from a woman spitting verbal venom to one overcome by the passion of the moment. The position Anne finds herself in, that of almost wanting to believe Richard speaks the truth, is repeated when Richard approaches Queen Elizabeth (Lynn Hawley), the late King Edward's wife, after murdering her two sons and asking for her help so that he may now woo and win her daughter (Hyman).

While the character of Richard clearly takes and owns the center stage, the entire cast, many of them playing multiple roles, are all quite good. In addition to Beck's strong turn as Lady Anne, there's Suzanne British's scenery-chewing work as Queen Margaret, a woman who has lost everything, but who is determined to set her curse upon Richard and others at court, watching with sadistic pleasure as what she proclaims unfolds. She also has a great final speech, one she delivers with gusto once her work is done. Hawley does well as Elizabeth, changing in attitude from a Queen in her own right to one who sees her entire world falling apart. Crane is enjoyable as Buckingham. Someone who, like Richard, is determined to get the riches and position he feels is due him.

The direction by Amanda Dehnert is spot-on, the production making full use of the relatively playing space while keeping the emphasis on characterization. Under her tutelage, every scene is full of emotion; whether pent up, held in check or busting at the seams with righteous fury or full-on malevolence. Thomas Schall's fight direction is also very good, especially as used during Richard's final battle.

Due to the streamlining of the show, which usually runs close to three hours, not all of the characters are as fully defined as they could be, and some of the plot points also suffer a bit, especially with explanations at times going by so quickly that if one's attention waivers for a moment, a key piece of information may be lost. Still, to those familiar with the world of Shakespeare, this version of Richard III should be an enjoyable experience; and for those not all that intimate with the Bard, it's a good place to get started, and hopefully whet one's appetite for more.

Richard III
Featuring: Ron Cephas Jones (Richard), Suzanne Bertish (Brakenbury, Queen Margaret of Anjou, Lord Mayor of London), Miriam A. Hyman (George Clarence, Lord Grey, Bishop of Ely, Young Elizabeth), Keith Eric Chappelle (Hastings, Tyrrel), Michelle Beck (Lady Anne, Young York), Lynne Hawley (Queen Elizabeth), Michael Crane (Corpse of King Henry IV, Buckingham) Kevin Kelly (King Edward IV, Catesby), Alex Hernandez (Lord Rivers, Prince Edward, Richmond), Members of the Company (Messengers, Guards, Servants)

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Amanda Dehnert
Scenic and Costume Design: Linda Roethke
Original Music: Amanda Dehnert
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Text Coach: Susan Finch
Production Stage Manager: Anne McPherson
Violin: Alex Hernandez
Stage Manager: Lily Perlmutter

Presented by The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes – no intermission
Closes: August 25, 2012

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