Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Richard III at The American Shakespeare Center

Plots are afoot and blood is being shed on the Blackfriar's Playhouse Stage in Staunton, Virginia.  The Actors' Renaissance Season's second production, William Shakespeare's Richard III, brings to a close a remarkable achievement for the American Shakespeare Center.  Over the past four seasons the company has produced both of Shakespeare's history tetralogies.   The Fall Season has given us Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and came to a rousing conclusion this past fall with Henry V.   Similarly, the previous Actors' Renaissance Seasons have given us the three parts of Henry VI and now ends Shakespeare's conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York with the deliciously paranoid and bloody tragedy/history of King Richard III.

For those who have had the privilege of seeing the entire tale unfold at the Blackfriar's Playhouse they have been rewarded by seeing characters who rise and fall with the winds of ambition.   Several characters whose triumphs are recorded in Henry VI, Part 3 meet their cursed fates here.  Yet, if Richard III is your only sampling you will enjoy an accomplished stand-alone drama.  While it can be confusing to keep straight who is backstabbing whom (pretty much everyone is a York, so no easy white versus red rose identifiers) and the pace occasionally lags, this is a well-acted compelling tale that is keeps its audience in an emotional grasp, even if you know how the story will end.

In brief, this is the tale of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, youngest brother of King Edward IV.   He plots to claim the throne for himself, eliminating first his brother, George, then his rivals for power, the family of his sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth and finally usurping the throne from his brother's children, King Edward V and his fellow "Prince in the Tower", Richard, Duke of York.   Yet, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and once triumphant, the increasingly paranoid King Richard turns on anyone he suspects of disloyalty giving hope to another potential usurper, the last Lancastrian, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.  At Bosworth Field history will be decided.

Given that this production is staged using the conditions believed to have been used by Shakespeare's own acting company, this production has quite a lot to recommend it. Without the benefit of a director the large "crowd" scenes, whether courtly intrigue, the battle of Bosworth or the visions of the terrifying ghosts of Richard's victims, all are carefully and compellingly staged.   While not all of the choices work, there are some scenes that seem to lack dramatic focus and have a lack of urgency, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.  This is still astonishing drama.

To that one must commend the brilliant characterizations.  To begin with, examine the ladies in the story.  That may be puzzling to many theater goers as most of the four women's roles are either cut completely or sharply reduced to keep the focus on the villainous title role.  Yet here the ladies give a depth to the drama that is sometimes lacking in other productions.

Sarah Fallon has portrayed Queen Margaret of Anjou through all four plays in the tetralogy.  She has taken Shakespeare's character fully from her brief appearance in Henry VI, Part 1 as the beautiful young princess captured in war through to the driving warrior queen of Parts 2 and 3 who ends banished, her husband and son murdered in the Yorkist Edward IV's triumph.   Here, Margaret returns, older,grayer, having lost everything but the shift on her back, yet full of venom as she curses those who defeated her.  When she returns late in the play, begged by Queen Elizabeth to curse Richard, her burning hatred for them all is palpable.

Alison Glenzer's Queen Elizabeth travels from proud and haughty queen to despairing widow and mother who sees her relatives die, one by one and then faces her tormentor with steely fortitude as he tries to win her agreement to marry his niece.   Miriam Donald's Duchess Cecily, Richard's mother, takes no guff from her bitterly hated son.  Brandi Rhome's Anne takes this very difficult role and clearly makes the audience almost understand how a woman can travel from hatred to accepting a marriage with the man who killed her husband and father-in-law.  Your heart will break when she, now unhappy queen, joins the ladies to beg admittance to see the children in the Tower and admits to them that she knows that she is not long for this world.

Amongst the male ensemble there are two standouts.  Aiden O'Reilly portrays the betrayed Clarence, he who is about to be drowned in a butt of malmsey wine, with a gentle bewilderment.   Rene Thornton, Jr., as Richard's partner in his rise, the Duke of Buckingham, shows a streak of ambition that burns to loathing when Richard, now King with his help, does not give the loyal Duke the honors he feels are his due.

And as for Richard?  Benjamin Curns delivers soundly a man with no moral scruples that is a joy to watch plot and weave his way to the throne.  Once there he exudes insecurity and gripping paranoia as Richard unravels whilst desperately trying to keep that which he has won at such a cost.  Mr. Curns creates a physical representation of Shakespeare's twisted hunchback without turning said physicality into a grotesque caricature.  His Richard is that repulsive snake who nevertheless has seductive charm.  Mr. Curns is truly the villain the audience will love to hate.

Despite the occasional pacing problems, this Richard III is a well worth visiting two and a half hours traffic upon the Blackfriar's Playhouse Stage.

Richard III will be presented as part of the Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher's Philaster, or Love Lies A-Bleeding, Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters, and Christopher Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage through April 5, 2012. For tickets and other performance information, please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

During the Actors' Renaissance Season there are no directors or designers. The American Shakespeare Center recreates what extensive research believes were the conditions that Shakespeare's acting company would have used to stage a play. The actors receive only cue scripts containing their lines and a short "cue", the last few words of the preceding actor's line. They are responsible for acquiring their own costumes and props from the stock available at the theater. There is a prompter on the side of the stage in case someone forgets a line. The rehearsal period is a matter of days.

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