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Richard III

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kevin Spacey
Photo by Manuel Harlan.

If you've got a twisted leg, a withered arm, and a hunched back, what else is there to do but crack jokes? This seems to be the prevailing concept behind the traditionally sinister title character in Sam Mendes's production of Richard III at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This production, the final in the three-year run of the Bridge Project and playing through March 4, attempts to convince us that this preternaturally melancholy Duke of Gloucester is more aptly styled Earl of Seinfeld, a characterization with which the actor playing him, Kevin Spacey, pushes and pierces the limits of acceptability. But when you spend two hours laughing at a pathetic man, you won't suddenly cower in fear of him for the 75 remaining minutes in this classic Shakespeare history's running time, an unfortunate reality that makes the evening as a whole difficult to swallow.

Such concerns are hardly addressed during the pre-intermission festivities. Why should they be? There's entertainment afoot! Spacey's Richard wears his myriad infirmities exactly like a prop comic does his visual aids. His left leg is cocked inward at the most precisely comical 50-degree angle, he walks with a silver-tipped cane that's also handy for stabbing a dead man's head (and then wiping off the blood, which he "forgets" as he dabs his forehead with the fabric a few seconds later—cue laugh track), and his hunch looks suspiciously like a neck pillow he'll pull from beneath his shirt any moment with a smarmy flourish.

Richard is even game for physical gags. When kneeling before the altar, caught "unawares" by a TV documentary marshaled by the Duke of Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji), his cooing face and not-so-subtle mugging more than highlight that this monstrous fellow isn't supposed to be so unlikable after all. And he shows just how like the rest of us he is when he's ready to assume his "rightful" place on the throne and trips on his plentiful robes to fall face first before the entire court. Even Tom Piper's gray-washed set suggests the influence of farce in everyone's lives: It's little more than a series of movable wall segments capable of displaying up to 18 different doors at once. Alas, there are no slamming contests or dueling plates of sardines.

Such things might help, to be honest. Though Spacey is unquestionably committed to his portrayal, which has a distinct accountant–turned–Borscht Belt–headliner vibe, it has nothing to do with the character he's playing. By making Richard so incorrigibly goofy, Spacey saps him of both his usual menace and his underhanded ambition. You sense that this is supposed to be a man who's developed these tricks and his cut-up personality as a defense mechanism against an ongoing onslaught of insults. But for that approach to land, Spacey must show you how the resulting pent-up resentment transforms into a blood-fueled thirst for power, which he never does.

So when intermission ends and you see the way Richard conducts his reign, you can't be horrified, moved, or even repulsed—it's as if these new actions are those of an entirely different person. The good news is that Spacey is far more comfortable playing this version of Richard, and finds far deeper shadings of intellect and motive than he bothers to unlock earlier on. Where Richard ends up is convincing enough; his journey to that point is almost entirely absent.

Mendes infuses with the rest of the production with a similarly schizophrenic set of attitudes, downplaying most of the murders (a hand passing gently over the eyes is the default weapon of choice) and employing two live musicians, on keyboard and percussion, to create an atmosphere at once haunting and visceral (though the near-constant underscoring and the second half's unvarying use of droning drums does grow wearying after a while). The balance between comedy and drama is off throughout, not just in Spacey's performance, but in bits as small as two slapstick assassins (Gary Powell and Jeremy Bob) and as significant as the widowed Queen Margaret (Gemma Jones), who drifts about the castle sounding and looking like a bag lady (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber).

At least the other performances are generally adept, with Haydn Gwynne's Queen Elizabeth, Maureen Anderman's Duchess of York, and Nathan Darrow's Richmond joining Jones's Margaret among the more successful. These actors find the most satisfying middle ground between their personal humanity and their courtly behavior, setting up notions of internal contrast and conflict that are too often missing from the rest of Mendes's conception. They're not causelessly stylized, they're simply allowed to be real.

Such a devotion to actuality would make all the sweeping silliness and the winkingly stark takes on everything else—the battlefield scenes near the end have been particularly stripped of their immediacy, both by fudging with the arrangement of the scenes and staging them as some sort of demented pantomime—much more palatable. It also might better explain Richard, who as it stands is a headliner without a spotlight. Were his rambunctiousness really a reaction to the stolid, hypocritical insincerity of the world around him, it might make work. But we would absolutely have to see what he was rebelling against.

Because we don't, Spacey's Richard III, and thus the entire play surrounding him, is disconnected, not just from his society but from the universe itself. The only time this Richard occupies a coherent location and philosophy is when he stumbles into a throne room photo op, where the goal is clearly to preserve for posterity the image of every person there. Yet when the photographer tries to snap Richard, it is the Duke who snaps, instead waving his hand away both to shoo his unwitting aggressor and to hide his face. In that moment we see the depths of his pain and isolation in his unwillingness to be seen. If that's this Richard's saving grace, for Spacey and this production, both of which also suffer from it, it's the fatal flaw.

Richard III
Through March 4
3 hours 20 minutes, with intermission
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
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