Most productions of William Shakespeare's Richard III begin with the famous line, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York." This is not so with the Genesis Repertory production which is currently playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
Rest assured that Shakespeare's dramatic, intense text detailing the bloody lengths to which one man will go to be king, has not been at all desecrated. That speech remains the first dialogue spoken in character, but it is preceded by a show that summarizes the action detailed in the earlier plays in Shakespeare's series of histories told entirely with miniature marionettes (provided by Vit Horejs and the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre). While downright hilarious in places (watching marionette versions of warring houses bloodily murder each other is an indescribable experience) the show is always informative and sets the stage, literally, for what is to come. The show ends with one lone marionette appearing onstage, just as the lights come up on the start of Richard's speech.
The marionettes are used in other ways throughout the evening as well, always brilliantly. They provide an extension to the production's already fairly sizeable ensemble, as well as make some fascinating stage effects possible. For some reason, the use of the marionettes to demonstrate a beheading just seems right. When the ghosts of those Richard has murdered reappear later bearing their own marionettes, the moment is chilling and highly effective.
The human actors in the show don't do poorly by any stretch of the imagination, but none of the performers is capable of rising above their marionette counterparts. Paul Nicholas, as Richard, commands the language well, and infuses Richard with an earthy sex appeal that works for the character as conceived here, but never really takes command of the stage the way it seems he should. He doesn't seem to possess the fire necessary to orchestrate the deeds he must to become ruler. Josh Blumenfeld as Buckingham, one of Richard's compatriots, does better in his role, but is still never entirely convincing.
The women, as a whole, fare better. Sharita Storm Sage's Lady Anne, Richard's love interest, is fiery, while the more regal women, including Queen Elizabeth herself (Mary Elizabeth MiCari), The Duchess of York (Sheila Mart), and Queen Margaret (Irma St. Paule) turn in pointed, detailed performances. The rest of the cast, though possessing few standouts, does admirably and carries the story along on their capable shoulders.
Director Jay Michaels does a lot with the material, and presents it quite well, always keeping the story in prime focus, and Margo La Zaro's costumes, though mostly suggestive, evoke the flavor of the play and the setting well.
However, it's the marionettes that both make and steal the show. Michaels and the cast managed to use the marionettes in the best way possible and, through no fault of their own, lost some of their own thunder. Their idea, it seems, was too good, making a production of Richard III going further still with the marionette idea an intriguing prospect. The show as a whole is good, but it is the marionettes and their masterful use that make this production of Richard III a must-see.