Sunday, May 12, 2013

Richard III (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Fair is fair. Let me begin by noting that Shakespeare's play Richard III is one of my favorites. Hence I bear quite a number of opinions on the subject--what is going on, how to view the characters, its strengths and weaknesses, etc. This cannot help but color my review.

That acknowledged, Zombie Joe's production of this play left me with some profoundly mixed feelings.

Begin with the text. As per standard operating procedure at ZJU, this three-hour-plus script ended up streamlined to one third that length. No bad thing, it seems to me. Richard III, an early play by Shakespeare, tends to seem overlong, especially to American audiences with less than a far-above-average knowledge of English history. Even the recent discovery of Richard's bones probably did little to change that. Besides, the sheer number of characters and the complexity of the relationships is so vast, I can but applaud practical efforts to make the play an easier experience. Had Shakespeare written the play later in life, it would frankly be a better and less cluttered script. Probably shorter as well.

But as far as I can tell, the editor in this case focused on hitting the high points of the plot. This effort works very well for some plays. It certainly did when the same director seemed to use this approach for her award-winning Hamlet last year and her thoroughly delightful Much Ado About Nothing a few months past! However, Richard III is (at least in my view) primarily a character piece--a portrait of this villain who shared all his thoughts and schemes with the audience. In effect, he makes them his co-conspirators. The plot per se is not only secondary, but almost tertiary. To work, we need to see Richard first and foremost, see and share his experience of events.

One result of this approach proved to be confusion. Major characters ended up cut, so they respective deaths impacted us not at all. Yet my companion that evening simply could not keep track of them all. She walked away with plenty of erroneous ideas of what happened. I myself lost track of who was who and what just happened, yet I know the play very well!

This approach involved stripping away nearly all nuance from the central character. Elizabethan theatre abounded with plays about Richard. He was their equivalent of Hannibal Lecter! Yet we only produce Shakespeare's version today. Why? Because in this one, he's a human being as well as a monster. He's a man who says "Love foreswore me in my mother's womb." (Olivier added this line from an earlier history play, but the words did come from Richard).  Likewise he wakes from nightmares of his victims and in the dead of night, gives voice to the bitter self awareness that he can find no pity in himself even for himself. (Ian McClellan cut this speech to the bone, but pointed did retain it). All these tiny glimpses of the man he might have been--gone. So the reason for the full title--The Tragedy of Richard III--gone. He isn't a tragedy. He's just an evil jerk.

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe
And yet...

W. Lochridge O'Bryan portrays Richard and Anna Gillcrist Lady Anne (right) is what is in many ways THE scene. Known as the "wooing of Lady Anne" this scene makes one long to see more interactions between the characters.

Honestly, it rarely works. Finding a way to justify how Richard persuades Anne to even consider him--he just interrupted the public funeral procession of her father in law, whom he murdered!--poses quite a challenge. I have my own theories. This production made a choice I've never seen before. And it worked so very, very well! This is what always hopes for in going to see a play already known! Something new and wonderful!  Going back to the history, that Anne and Richard grew up together as children, I could see the history there. More, I could see a reaction to Richard that Anne tried desperately to control--namely, that she found him intensely attractive! That the whole production didn't use this utterly wonderful piece of irony frustrated me no end! The fact they did it at all, however, was worth going in and of itself!

But really, kudos to those two in the highest caliber!

Photo Credit: Zombie Joe
O'Bryan unfortunately (and the cuts in the script did not help) fell into a trap. A common trap, with all acting and to some degree with acting Shakespeare. Several members of the cast fell into the same one. They chose to play exactly one emotion, pretty much throughout. Some of them could do it quite well! Sarah Fairfax as Queen Elizabeth (the famous Elizabeth's great grandmother) does worried nicely. But for most of the play that is all she did, until near the end when she gave us a very good example of fear. Multi-layered fear at that. But O'Bryan spent something like two-thirds of his stage time angry--nearly always a bad choice (this rule of thumb got hammered into me at the National Shakespeare Conservatory and I've zero reason to doubt it). Frankly, when he wasn't foaming at the mouth and almost screaming his Richard proved riveting. His kind words to Clarence, the scene in which he woo'd Lady Anne, his own terror during and after the nightmare before battle--this flashes of humanity made me want to see him again.

But for the most part his Richard seemed a one-note thug. Not, I'm convinced, from lack of talent. In several other roles actors I've seen before--Tyler McAuliffe and Kirby Anderson (excellent in Sculptress of Angel X)--fell into the same bad habits many do when confronted with Shakespeare. Unnatural body language is one (the overuse of hands is a dead giveaway) while another is acting out what they're talking about. Oh dear. And throughout, most of the cast grabbing a single emotion and holding on to it for dear life through all that iambic pentameter.

But again, there were flashes in most of the cast of real quality. Only in the wooing of Lady Anne did it prove consistent, however. For that scene at least I was pleased to have gone. But for the most part I don't think this was up to the standards established by this director in her previous two Shakespeare productions.

Richard III plays at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group at 4850 Lakershim Blvd, North Hollywood CA 91606 Fridays at 8:30pm and Sundays at 7pm until June 16, 2013. You can make reservations at (818) 202-4120