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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Richard III

Thou cam'st on earth to make the earth my hell
Thy schooldays frightful,
A grievous burthen was they birth to me;
Tetchy and wayward was thy infancy;
Thy school-days frightful, desperate, wild and furious;
Thy prime of manhood daring, bold, and venturous;
Thy age confirm'd, proud, subtle, sly and bloody,
More mild, but yet more harmful, kind in hatred.
What comfortable hour canst thoug name
That ever grac'd me with thy company?

-- the Duchess of York (Beverly Wideman) to her son Richard III (Jonathan Epstein), (Act IV, scene iv), the theater's most famous "bad seed" and wicked uncle. When Richard tells her "You speak too bitterly" she counters that she wishes his enemies success and victory in bringing an end to his shameful and bloody deeds. To which Queen Elizabeth (Ariel Bock), mother of the two nephews he's had killed, says "Amen."
The Duchess of York, and Queen Elizabeth aren't the only women in Shakespeare's much produced and often re-conceived Richard III who recognize and feel the weight of the famous crouchback's villainies. The two other widows -- Lady Anne (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and "Mad Margaret" (Annette Miller) -- see him as a monstrous spider weaving his evil web and denounce him with their curses and laments. Richard remains the Machiavellian central character. However, director Tina Packer, aided by lamentation expert Kimberly White, has brought the women's lamentation to the forefront complete with now rarely used lamentation rituals. Ms. Packer's lamenting women, hooded and gowned in black, huddle together in dramatic tableaus evoke memories of the grieving mothers and wives protesting against the murder and imprisonment of their sons and husband under the Pinochet dictatorship. They bring a combined touch of ancient Greece and political currency to this production. They also serve Ms. Packer's raison d'être for restoring this element which Shakespeare included but which most modern directors omit or digest in the interest of pace: The moans and groans that will not be stilled by the tyrant, here serve as a "nudge" to eventually rouse the unprotesting men to rise up against the King. On the down side, this ritualized breast-beating, tends to become somewhat repetitious and give an occasional sense of watching this action-filled drama in slow motion.

New and notable, besides the emphasis on the women and their lamentations, is the fact that the company is for the first time performing in a spacious new indoor venue with comfortable stadium seating. Miguel Romero's multi-level set, while more elaborate than is usual for this company, nevertheless retains a feeling of stark simplicity. He's captured the whole bloody saga into a vivid visual triptych. One part consists of a large mural with numerous heads engulfed by a giant viper -- the monster Richard whose credo for dealing with opposition was "off with his head". A six foot high ramp gives the illusion of palace and battlefield and an enormous spider web provides a dramatic and practical backdrop. This web, besides its impact as a powerful visual metaphor for the twisted schemes of the overly ambitious "bottled spider", is constructed to serve as a practical point of his entry and final exit. Michael Gianitti's lighting supports this dark vision most effectively.

The last Richard III I saw took an over-the-top approach, with Richard dressed in red leather and leering and leaping around, literally like a bloody spider (see link ). Jonathan Epstein's Richard is more straightforward. He is a forceful but never overly flamboyant monster. Dressed all in black, he propels his misshapen body, wielding a pair of crutches in an entertainingly sinister display of acrobatics. His cunning entails flashes of sardonic humor not only in his verbal asides but in his movements; the last best illustrated when, after his coronation he clambers slowly and painfully up the long ramp and collapses onto the throne with a sigh of exhausted triumph.

Unlike some Richards who turn the famous last desperate cry "My kingdom of a horse" into an operatic aria, Epstein lets this line slide by almost quietly. With that spidery web to beckon him into a final collapse, anything more would be too much. His is a solid portrait of a character to whom "conscience is a word that cowards use" (Act V, scene iii, line 310), on a par with his excellent Shylock in last season's Merchant of Venice . ( see links).

Some comments about the women who in this play use their lamentations to protest Richard's reign of terror --

Elizabeth Aspenlieder who in the past has been seen mostly in sweet young thing roles manages to be more formidable as Lady Anne. Her capitulation to Richard is one of the most challenging about-faces in the theatrical canon. Her costume and hair style are sadly unflattering (just take a look at her picture on the front Shakespeare & Company's seasonal brochure and you'll see what I mean).

Ariel Bok is stately as Queen Elizabeth. You won't soon forget her "Where are my children" after Richard has just ordered their deaths. (That murder, according to some scholars, may well be a myth spread by the popularity of Shakespeare's play). The scene where Richard tries to convince her that by allowing her daughter to marry him she will help him to redress their murder by making her Queen mirrors the scene in which he wears down Lady Anne's resistance to becoming his consort. Elizabeth's unmitigated scorn doesn't leave enough of an opening for her "Write to me very shortly, and you shall understand from me her mind" to be completely persuasive. However, when she joins Richard's mother in lamenting his birth and willing his death on the battlefield, we see the power of these women 's curses to weaken Richard's chances of survival and understand why lamentation rituals were eventually banned.

Beverly Wideman gives an imposing performance as the Duchess of York. Annette Miller, whose work I've admired in the past, runs a bit towards excess as the "mad" Queen Margaret, at times coming across like a whole chorus of lamenters. On the other hand, her scene with the two other widows is riveting.

In a cast of twenty it's impossible to go into details about all. Jonathan Croy's Duke of Buckingham is a chilling presence. Michael Hammond and Malcolm Ingram ably handle several roles.

The overall direction is very reminiscent of Shakespearian spectacles seen in the wooded setting of the former Wharton estate (Shakespeare & Company's home for just a few more seasons). Instead of actors rushing in and out of the woods, Ms. Packer sends them clambering up the Duffin Theatre's wide aisles, as well as up and down the onstage ramp and steps. Somehow, all the up-and-down-the-aisle activity tends to be distractingly busy and would have benefitted from a little moderation. No doubt, if the company does more productions in this beautiful space, they will reserve this into-the-woods busyness for their outdoor productions. Ms. Packer is hardly alone in this overuse of the aisles as a way to break down the fourth wall between audiences and actors, a fact to which alll who saw the two Main Stage productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival ( Camino Real and The Taming of the Shrew) can attest

A minor quibble pertains to the coronation scene. It is done with a grand flourish. However, while baring the kneeling king and queen to the waist is dramatic, in the Richard's case seeing the actor's humpback paraphenalia is more jarring than shocking.

Ms. Packer and her troupe make no concession to the widely noted shortness of the public's attention span. It takes three hours and twenty-five minutes (including a 15 minute intermission) for this Richard's murderous ascent to the throne and for opposing forces led by the Earl of Richmond to do him in. Unlike trendier, updates of this enduring saga of evil personified, this is a fairly traditional Richard with the only newfangled device being the emphasis and expansion of the lamentations. No motor cars. No trendy leather clothes. Just the power of the Bard's poetry and the resonating theme of the corrupting influence of political ambition gone amuck.

Links to other reviews mentioned:
A paired production of Richard II and III
A multi-media Richard III
Shakespeare & Company's The Merchant of Venice
Camino Real
The Taming of the Shrew

Production Notes
By William Shakespeare
Director: Tina Packer
Assistant Director: Beth Child
Lamentation Director: Kimberly White
Fight Director: Tony Simotes
Cast in alphabetical order: Elizabeth Aspenlieder, Ariel Bock, PJ Bonavitacola, Robert Bullington, Nathan Wolfe Coleman, Tiger Coleman, Henry David Clarke, Jonathan Croy, Jonathan Epstein, Michael Hammond, Rory Hammond, Malcolm Ingram, Annette Miller, Deborah-Lin Perry, John Sarrouf, John Douglas Thompson, Bonnie Lee Whang, Beverly Wideman, Finn Wittrock, and Mark Woollett
Sets: Miguel Romero
Costumes: Kiki Smith
Lights: Michael Giannitti
Sound: Harold Meltzer and Mark Huang
Shakespeare & Company, Duffin Theatre
Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, 197 East St., Lenox
Tkts:413/637-3353) or Group, student, and senior rates available.
7/08/99-8/01/99; opening 7/10/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
based on opening night performance

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