Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Richard III
Great River Shakespeare Festival
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's review of Idiot's Delight

Christopher Gerson
Photo by Dan Norman
The Great River Shakespeare Festival is a professional Equity company in Winona, Minnesota. Now in its fourteenth season, GRSF offers Twin City audiences excellent, highly accessible Shakespeare (and more) by way of a beautiful drive through Mississippi River bluff country. Season 14 mainstage plays are The Comedy of Errors, Richard III, and Donald Margulies' Shipwrecked! An Entertainment. This year the festival is staging a fourth production in the adjacent Black Box Theater: An Iliad, Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson's adaptation of Homer's epic for a single actor. The festival also offers an Intern Production (Henry VI), open air concerts, guest lecturers, narrated set-changes, conversations with cast and crew members at local eateries, and other events.

It has been customary for Great River Shakespeare Festival to produce one of the Bard's comedies and one of his more serious works, a tragedy or a history play, each season. Richard III is this summer's somber offering. It is directed by GRSF Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson in a muscular production that captures the audience throughout, from Richard's opening lines, "Now is the winter of our discontent," through his downfall on the battlefield, where he desperately cries "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"

Central to this is a fantastic performance by Christopher Gerson in the title role. As malevolent as Richard is, it is impossible to look away from his obsessive quest for power. In Gerson's portrayal, his steely resolve, unbounded energy, and the wit of his deceit impress even as we are appalled by his horrific thoughts and deeds. He plays the role hunched forward, supported with two arm braces, to indicate the hunchback Shakespeare has ascribed to Richard, yet he briskly scrambles about the stage, up and down the two raised platforms that compose the set, like a caged animal infuriated by his bonds. This Richard's determination clearly breaks past and limits deformity—or birth order—have placed upon him.

Gerson commands the center of the production, but his is not the only impressive performance. The GRSF ensemble cast are all excellent, adeptly handling accents and, in most cases, playing multiple roles with no loss of focus, which is greatly supported by Scholz-Carlson's steady directorial hand. Making particularly strong impressions among the cast are Caroline Amos, a grieving widow succumbing to flattery as Lady Anne, Stephanie Lambourn as strong-willed Queen Elizabeth who can almost hold her own against her murderous brother-in-law Richard, Melissa Maxwell as Queen Margaret, raging against the evil in her kingdom, and Benjamin Boucvalt as Buckingham, Richard's eager accomplice who too late realizes that his master's hatefulness knows no bounds.

For this production, there are a few short rows of audience seats on stage, enclosing the action in a tighter sphere, which underscores the incestuous nature of the battle among cousins and siblings. With the first death, the deceased places his crown atop a spear far upstage, then slowly exits, as a fading spirit. As the death toll mounts, each victim's crown or hat is placed on one such spear, forming a stark visual reminder of Richard's trail of mayhem. Near the end, when Richard's rise to power is about to crash downward and he is visited by the ghosts of all those murdered, the characters confront Richard with their respective headgear, pushing the spear toward him, a stunningly theatrical effect.

The costumes designed by Rebecca Bernstein are beautifully rendered, marking each character's stature and making it easy to identify them, as actors quickly change from one role to another. R. Eric Stone's setting includes a graphic image of treetops hanging across the rear of the stage which rise and fall, giving the sense of action taking place in a deep woods. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz has designed lighting which draws tight orbs around the characters as they chafe against deceit or entertain their own dark moods. Katherine Horowitz's original music and work with sound adds an aural atmosphere that reinforces each scene's emotional timbre, especially during the fight scenes, expertly choreographed by Scholz-Carlson.

Richard III is categorized as one of Shakespeare's histories. It tells the gruesome saga of how Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became King of England, only to fall in battle after a reign of only two years. Shakespeare's Richard is a brutal monster who seduces a woman whose husband and father he had just killed, is responsible for the execution of his brother, and orders the death of his two young nephews over whom he had been named Protector. Yet, the historical record is more ambiguous and Shakespeare's account takes numerous liberties with the facts.

Depending on how one interprets British history, Richard is sometimes seen as an able ruler who consolidated power in the monarchy. He was also the last monarch of the House of York, defeated in battle by Henry VII of the House of Tudor. This brought to an end the decades-long War of the Roses (between the Houses of York and Lancaster), thus closing the door on Britain's medieval epoch. It was only 107 years later, in 1592, that Shakespeare wrote Richard III. The Tudors still held throne under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, Henry VII's granddaughter. Given his primary audience, Shakespeare may have been inclined to paint Richard III as a demonic usurper who fully deserved to be destroyed by the Queen's grandfather. In that case, Richard III may be more rightly considered a tragedy than a history. For a contemporary audience, certainly, it has more bearing as a lesson on the evils wrought by seething resentment and unbridled ambition, and not so much as a tutorial on English succession.

In any case, the production is spell binding, whether seen as a history lesson or an allegory as bracing as the darkest of Greek tragedies. With the ill will generated by our current political circumstances, there is some solace to know that at least we have risen far above such barbarism. On the other hand, Richard's ability to turn circumstances to his favor and to shift language in order to dominate his opponents may seem uncomfortably familiar. Part of Shakespeare's genius was to take very specific events and sift out from them universal and timeless import. That, perhaps, is another reason that, in spite of the warm July weather, Richard III leaves a sharp chill in the air.

Richard III in Season 14 of the Great River Shakespeare Festival continues through July 29, 2017, at the Performing Arts Center of Winona State University, 450 Johnson Street, Winona, MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $49.00; General Seating (reserves a ticket but not a specific seat) - $25.00; Students - $15.00. Discount Pass for all three mainstage shows area available. For performance and other event schedules and tickets call 507-474-7900 or go to

Writer: William Shakespeare; Director and Fight Choreographer: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Scenic Design: R. Eric Stone; Lighting Design: Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; Costume Design: Rebecca Bernstein; Original Music and Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Props Supervisor: Connor M. McEvoy; Text Coach: Bryan Hunt; Fight Captain: Travis Huddleston; Production Manager: Joseph Millett; Stage Manager: Laura F. Wendt; Assistant Director; Nico Quinn; Assistant Stage Manager: Tyree Franklin

Cast: Caroline Amos (Lady Anne/Citizen/Messenger/Herbert), Benjamin Boucvalt (Duke of Buckingham), Emma Bucknam (Richard, Duke of York), Christopher Gerson (Richard, Duke of Gloucester), Alex Givens (Lord Rivers/Bishop of Ely/Duke of Norfolk), Stephanie Lambourn (Queen Elizabeth), Katie LeSuer (Duchess of York/Earl of Oxford/Murder 2/Messenger), Adeline Matthees (Edward, Prince of Wales), Melissa Maxwell (Queen Margaret/Citizen/Scrivener/Sir James Blunt/Messenger), Duncan McIntyre (Lord Hastings/Sir Richard Ratcliffe), Christopher Peltier (Tyrrel/Henry, Earl of Richmond), Silas Sellnow (Sir William Catesby), Jason Michael Spelbring (George, Duke of Clarence/King Edward IV/Lord Stanley),