When the theater doors open for Amanda Dehnert's production as part of The Public's Mobile Shakespeare Unit, you'll notice but a single set piece gracing the stage: a sprawling white cloth tapestry depicting the complex players and interrelationships of the constantly sparring houses in the War of the Roses. Although various performers will apply spongefuls of red dye to the tapestry during the show to keep track of who's lost along the way, it's more important as a reminder that the stakes of this decades-long conflict extend well beyond merely the main players in one of William Shakespeare's most celebrated histories. Everyone will feel the impact.
This lesson is central to Dehnert's conception in more ways than one. Aside from the fact that the MSU's mission is to bring classic theatre to prisons, homes for the elderly, less-privileged schools, and other places where the Bard may not usually appear, her infinitely adaptable staging (necessary for the nearly two dozen one-night stands that preceded this crowning three-week run) incorporates the audience into the action as well. When Edward IV (Kevin Kelly), Prince Edward (Alex Hernandez), Lady Anne (Michelle Beck), and most of the rest first appear, it's from seats in the house; even Queen Margaret (Suzanne Bertish) sneaks in from the auditorium to deliver her big speech. This, Dehnert insists, is a story for, about, and by us.
Compelling as this may prove for general audiences, it must be noted that Dehnert's is not a vision for the rock-ribbed purist. Clocking in at just about 100 minutes with no intermission, it jettisons around half the text. And most of its nine cast members doubling, tripling, or quadrupling in roles means you get a lot of sweeping big-picture ideas that stress the visceral excitement of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, scheming and killing his way to the throne, with most of the poetic details absent. This may be Shakespeare for short runs as well as Shakespeare for short attention spans.
Looking at it from that standpoint, this is a masterful Richard III that never leaves you hungry for the side dishes it doesn't serve. A chief reason for this is the Richard, Ron Cephas Jones. He's equipped with arm and leg braces, but doesn't need strange makeup or a hunch to communicate how the crippled nature of the man's soul is made manifest in his flesh. With a drawn face permanently frozen between anger and disappointment, and wielding a voice that accepts his ultimate fate long before his brain has recognized it, this is a Richard harboring no illusions about who he is or what he's capable of.
That makes him both an embraceable and terrifying one, because even if you know the play, Jones stalks through it in an unpredictable way that's uniquely his. His draping all-black costume (by Linda Roethke) may recall a monk's robe but there's not a trace of traditional religious patience within either his face or his line delivery. Richard has waited long enough for his time to ascend, his glowers project, and this is at last it. The ambition is omnipresent, but it's frequently subservient to other emotions: When pursuing the death of his brother Clarence (Miriam A. Hyman), you believe it's strictly a business decision; when seducing Lady Anne to be his queen, Richard is charming, even romantic.
There's never a question as to how this Richard transcends his challenges, and Jones's every step of the journey is magnetic. Unfortunately, once he gets where he's going, he's rather less convincing — you'd think that a Richard who so thrives on historical inevitability would more passionately try to hold on to the position he never before had a solid reason to believe he'd attain. But he approaches even the late scenes and his final battle with the Lancastrian Richmond (Hernandez again) in the same, almost indifferent, way, which flattens out the drama just when it should be bulging almost to the bursting point.
So deflating was the ending at the performance I attended, in fact, that Hernandez had to step out of character to inform the audience that it was time to applaud. Had Dehnert extended her storytelling determination, if not her full concept, to the last moments, such confusion could likely have been avoided. It's frustrating to see something so committed to, and for the most part so successful in, its mission fall apart just when it should be most readily reaping the fruits of its innovation. If nothing else, the actors, almost all of whom are excellent (with Bertish particularly dynamic and caustic as Margaret, Beck a smoldering delight as Anne, and Hernandez gutturally sparking in all his roles), deserve to see their fine work reach full bloom.
Until those final scenes, however, this take couldn't be better at capturing the work's energetic essence for Shakespeare aficionados and newcomers alike. Dehnert's version will never replace the real deal, which is darker, deeper, and tauter throughout. But if you've never been exposed to the play, or you want to witness for yourself how a 420-year-old play can be made to feel immediate and cutting for anyone, this Richard III is worth the trip.
Public Theater Mobile Shakespeare Unit