Richard III by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jonathan Croy.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Eyes made blind with envy."
I am a sucker for a good Shakespeare comedy. In all honesty I never thought I could say that Richard III, a play filled with bloodshed, death, monarchy issues, child killings, and a war would ever rank high on that particular list of plays. Under the clever and inventive direction of Shakespeare and Company player and director Jonathan Croy, the first three acts of the play have been transformed into a light, farcical romance with the above list still in play. There were enough laughs to satisfy a stand-up comic, but we still got the deviousness, the plotting, the danger and the murders. Nothing, unfortunately, can transform the second half of the evening and so we end up with another "Don Giovanni" sort of evening where the comedy suddenly darkens and the other side of life takes over the scene, almost completely.
This really occurs after Richard is crowned King of England. Once that goal is achieved the play becomes more a typical History Play. While it may be true that Shakespeareís Richard isnít quite the villain heís been painted to be it is also true that the play is the play and at some point the foolishness and oddity of peculiar line readings and oddly out-of-keeping relationships gives way to that other reality that Shakespeare does so well.
Croy has a brilliant cast on hand to pull the humor out of the drama and put the drama back into the play. First and foremost there is John Douglas Thompson as Richard. As a deformed human being, and third son in a royal clan, he has some issues and Thompson explores those along the way, while never forcing them onto the audience. In his playing of the role every issue Richard has is merely a part of the whole picture. His is a very well integrated man. Thompsonís particular strength seen here is his sense of humor. It is delicate and precise and as Richard progresses through his self-generated horrors that humor comes out more and more often until the Act II scene when the audience proclaims him King. When he does Richardís emotional turnabout, Thompson strikes the perfect note. The transition happens as a visual turn, and it works brilliantly. He signals to us that the comedy is finished; now begins the play.
Four women dominate most of the show. Tod Randolph is superb as Queen Elizabeth, Richardís sister-in-law. Emotionally she is richly endowing her character with nuances and shifts that take her to the right places but mystify us just a bit. She is delightfully quirky. Elizabeth Ingram has fabulous moments as Queen Margaret, Richardís grandmother. She is the dark, foreboding voice always floating on the horizon of this play. Annette Miller takes top honors a the Duchess of York, Richardís mother. In wild costumes designed by Arthur Oliver, she is a virago. Leia Espericueta makes a perfect Lady Anne, forced into marriage with Richard. Together or apart these ladies tear down the non-existent walls of Patrick Brennanís functional set.
Best among the men in the show are Nigel Gore as Duke of Buckingham, Josh Aaron McCabe as Catesby, Ryan Winkles as Tyrrel, Johnny Lee Davenport as the Lord Mayor of London and Robert Biggs as Lord Stanley. Youngster William Palmer delivers nicely as the Prince of Wales, too.
Croyís unusual vision, tempered clearly by years here in French farces, helps bring a very trying melodrama into focus through the use of humorous delivery of lines. These actors all know how to take a dramatic moment and bring out the underlying foolishness or the insistent physical joke or the baseline attitude that alters its meaning ever so slightly. His stage pictures and his clearly established on-stage relationships are focused nicely in spite of the rapid fire dialogue. As conceived and adapted for this company by its new artistic director Tony Simotes, "The Life and Death of King Richard III" almost cannot reach its climactic cry of "A Horse, A horse. My kingdom for a Horse," due to the volume and the excellent fight choreography provided by Ryan Winkles. Audience involvement in major decisions affecting that life become radically important in the best scene in Act II.
Get thee to the Founders Theatre for a lightweight heavyweight fight over control of England. Youíre slated to be a winner. This show certainly is one.
John Douglas Thompson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Tod Randolph with Enrico Spada and Leia Espericueta; photo: Kevin Sprague
Annette Miller and Elizabeth Ingram; photo: Kevin Sprague
Richard III plays in repertory through September 5 at the Founders Theatre at Shakespeare and Company located at 70 Kemble Street in Lenox, Massachusetts. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.