Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Attend the Tale of Richard III at
Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

Also see Bob's review of The Best Man

Paul Niebanck, Paul Mullins, John Seidman
Shakespeare, Schmakespeare. Let's not get too hifalutin here. Richard III is melodrama at its most excessive. Historians regard it as wildly inaccurate. In 1491, Richard III, the last Plantagenet monarch, was defeated by the Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII). When Shakespeare wrote the play little more than 100 years later, Richmond's granddaughter Tudor Queen Elizabeth sat on the English throne. Thus, it is widely assumed that by demonizing Richard young William consciously sought to ingratiate himself to his Court patrons. Thus, it is quite appropriate for director Vivienne Benesch to pull out all the stops and give us an often over the top, macabre, funhouse interpretation of the play.

At the opening, a coffin built into the middle of the central, largest and least angled platform opens and a ghostly Richard climbs out and sets the scene. After a long period of bloody conflict England is finally tranquil and all is right with the world. For everyone, that is, except Richard. The physically deformed Richard (here he has a limp, a small hump on his back and a withered, dead left arm which is supported by a harness raising over his shoulder and around his neck) has no use for the social enjoyments of his fellow royals. The snickering Richard is needy. He informs us that his physical deformity and its encumbrances have caused the others to regard and treat him as an inferior creature, and that he can only find solace in replacing his oldest brother, Edward IV, on the throne. The boy also makes clear his need to cause as much death and pain as possible in the pursuit of his goal. Before Richard's dead body is finally kicked back into the coffin almost three hours later, it will rise from the floor a seeming double digit number of times to claim his many victims. The death of each one places a chilling smile of mad happiness on Richard's face.

The text is delivered in a stark and clear manner. Without knowledge of the historical cycle of plays preceding it or of English history, it is not easy to figure out all the relationships within the House of York and Lancaster. Several are addressed variously by name or title. If one is not aware that Richard is (the Duke of) Gloucester, that (the Duke of) Clarence is George, Richard's other brother, and that Lady Grey is Queen Elizabeth, wife to Edward, there will be some moments of confusion. However, given all this, the uncluttered clarity of the performance is exceptional.

Paul Mullins' Richard is all insinuating evil, and yet, at the beginning, his directness and sense of longing somehow manage to engage our sympathy. His performance, abetted by the direction, incidental music, set design, and lighting, put me strongly in mind of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler Sweeney Todd.

Among a large and largely excellent cast, there are a number of stand out performances. Roberta Maxwell as Margaret, widow of King Henry VI whose husband and children were murdered by the ruling House of York, projects powerful, implacable hatred toward them. Her warnings about Richard to the others of his destructiveness seem to go unheeded because the extremity of her expression appears to contain his own seed of madness. Queen Elizabeth, Edward's wife, is played with a fierce intelligence by Kathleen McNenny. Her (act four) scene with Richard in which he tries to convince her to allow him to marry her daughter Elizabeth is especially compelling.

Under the sure handed direction of Vivienne Benesch, all of the other principals give lively, lucid and straightforward readings as the members of the royal court and their respective plotting supporters.

The setting is striking. The bulk of the stage floor is divided into three horizontally joined raised platforms which descend at three different angles from upstage left to downstage right and into the auditorium. The different angles create a wave effect which hurtles the action into the lap of the viewer. Even this flooring is melodramatic as it appears to consist of black vertical slats which are separated by crimson lines and pocked with crimson-hued stigmata. In the regal Court scenes which are bathed in mostly bright clear light (with some yellow gels) the flooring is visually bleached to a wood tone with actual divisions between the slats now visible. The curtains providing the background are black, although lighting gels at times turn some crimson in appearance. The handsome matching costumes (including military uniforms), props and social mannerisms, which suggest late Victorian England, are felicitous. They are largely in crimson and black (with white), with gold accents to designate royalty. The stunning set and costumes are both the work of Murell Horton. The complementary, enhancing lighting design is by Jane Cox.

Oh, let's not forget that incidental music. It is often melodramatic and, at times, whimsical. Although I have no idea of its actual origins, it suggested to my ears the German period of Kurt Weill, and the cabaret songs of the Weimar Republic.

All in all, there is a very direct, modern feel to this Richard III. This is quite appropriate when then, as on today's world scene, roundelays of killings and revenge killings ad infinitum are central motifs. Thus, it almost seems a sin for Richard III to be as blithely entertaining as it is here.

Richard III continues performances through October 8, 2006 (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed —Sat 8 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m./ Mats. Sat. & Sun. 2 p.m.) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ, 07940. Box Office: 973-408-3361/ online

Richard III By William Shakespeare, Directed By Vivienne Benesch

Edward………………………..Ian Styart
George……………...Teagle F. Bougere
Richard…………………….Paul Mullins
Duchess Of York…………...Jane Altman
Margaret……………Roberta Maxwell
Lady Anne………………..Roxanna Hope
Queen Elizabeth…...Kathleen McNenny
Earl Of Richmond…....Joel De La Fuente
Hastings……..John Livingstone Rolle
Buckingham………………Paul Niebanck
Stanley……………………...John Seidman
And Ethan Botwick; Charles M. Kennedy; Tom Robenolt; Tyler Woods; Josh Carpenter;Brian Cade; Paul Reisman; Jeff Pagliano

Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey

- Bob Rendell

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