You see the shadow long before you see the man. It's a hulking, encompassing form that spans the full height of the stage and suggests a threatening and terrifying figure approaching from just beyond your field of vision. When this man of imposing size is eventually revealed, how can it be that he's only four-foot-six?
The actor is Peter Dinklage, and the role he's essaying is the title character in William Shakespeare's classic history about the end of the War of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors, Richard III. And if you think that Dinklage's casting in this Public Theater production, which has been directed by Peter DuBois, is nothing more than a gimmick, you couldn't be more wrong. Or more right.
Eschewing ghoulish makeup and prosthetics in creating his "rudely stamped" man not "made to court an amorous looking glass," Dinklage's Richard is who he is entirely because of his size. He's physically towered over by men, women, and even children, though his rage and ambition outstrip theirs at every turn; how could a man so utterly unnoticeable truly be a threat? Before Richard sets forth a single detail of his plan to steal the throne from his brother, King Edward IV, you implicitly know the subterfuge he will employ.
If this saps a bit of suspense from the production - you know from the opening moments that this Richard's viciousness can't be contained in his compact frame - it's nonetheless immediately effective. Seldom has such a satisfying explanation been presented for Richard's deformity and the behavior that springs from it, and rarely has a director so fully exploited that deformity in his staging. When Richard finally obtains the crown through treachery and bloodshed and attempts to mount his throne for the first time, the sight and sounds of the anguished man attempting to claim his prize - one several sizes too large for him - makes for a sobering, haunting moment.
Yet if not for this scene, the true payoff for Dinklage's casting, this would be a rudderless Richard III. Despite the opportunities for great contrast between his physical stature and his personality, Dinklage does not bring a particularly towering sense of command - or a wide Shakespearean vocal palette - to his role. Once the initially jarring impact of Dinklage's height dissipates, the actor reveals himself as only an adequate Richard, lacking the colorful range of personal complexities that might otherwise bring this production to the next level of emotional relevance and resonance.
Dinklage is not alone; the rest of the production is similarly of a by-the-numbers variety, from the solemnly dim lighting (Scott Zielinski) to the non-specific regal costumes (Marina Draghici) and even Riccardo Hernández's red velvet-swathed castle set. DuBois has staged what amounts to a very traditional production, adding few surprises or much unexpected energy to the proceedings. (Even the climactic battle scene, containing Richard's famous line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!", is a confusing throwaway as staged by fight choreographer Rick Sordelet.) The resulting show is unlikely to offer much in the way of revelations; if you know any Richard III, but for Dinklage, you know this one.
The other performers, for the most part, are likewise of the perfectly acceptable but not stellar variety. Only Isa Thomas, as the widow to Henry VI (whom Edward IV deposed), generates real chills. Cursing the events around her and taking grim pleasure in her enemies' failures, Thomas's Queen Margaret is a raw and cutting figure, and the actress bears more personality (and specificity) than anyone else onstage. Her work here is reminiscent of - and just as memorable as - Judi Dench's Oscar-winning eight-minute turn as Queen Elizabeth in the film Shakespeare in Love.
While everyone else does less with more, the women generally come off the best, with Kali Rocha as Richard's intended Lady Anne, Mercedes Herrero as the current queen, and Roberta Maxwell as the Duchess of York all holding their own, if never approaching Thomas's intensity. Ron Cephas Jones smolders nicely as Richard's ill-fated brother George, Harry Barandes displays some subtle remorse as Richard's toady Catesby, and Shane McRae is appropriately regal as the Duke of Richmond and the future Henry VII.
But any Richard III lives or dies by its Richard. If Dinklage is unable to elevate this production to new heights, he proves a dynamic enough force to keep it moving relentlessly, if never invigoratingly, onward. The end result is production that works, but never quite brings its worthy initial concept completely to fruition. This sharply reminds us that relying too much on Richard's physical appearance - whether it's natural or theatrical in origin - can too easily be more a liability than an asset.
The Public Theatre