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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though justly ranked at the top of Shakespeare's canon, the revivals of Richard III undoubtedly owe their frequency to directors wanting to bring a new look and interpretation to this last of the War of the Roses plays, actors eager to have a crack at this juicy super villain role, and audiences' taste for murder and mayhem. Not all of these new-fangled stagings compensate for a lack of clarity and so-so performances. That brings me to the new Richard III at Classic Stage. It's a strikingly stylized, production. Its star and co-director, Michael Cumpsty, is probably the best Richard I've ever seen. And while Richard is very much the play's pivot, his victims, enemies and followers are also outstandingly portrayed.
If you've been to Classic Stage before, you'll know that this is an intimate theater with a thrust stage that seems to be most effective when relatively free of scenery. If you've seen CSC artistic director Brian Kulick's previous Shakespeare productions you'll be familiar with his inventive way of turning a sparely furnished stage into a uniquely dynamic visual concept. In Richard III Kulick's concept, abetted by scenic designer Mark Wendland, works even for the crowd pleasing battle scenes. The dramatic mirrored back wall, in which half a dozen rising and descending chandeliers are reflected to at times look like the Palace of Versailles, and a banquet table and chairs on wheels moved from scene to scene are a bit voguish— but never to the point of upstaging the actors or the text.
Michael Cumpsty's booming but mellifluous voice once again makes Shakespeare's words sing out naturally and with clarity. Following an impressive, melancholy Dane in 2005 and a rockstar-like Richard II last year, the actor now adds a divinely wicked Richard III to his resume. While his Richard has a discernible hump and limp, he is not repulsive and does not exacerbate his deformity with excessive gimmickry like leg braces or costume (I recall one Richard in a blood red spidery outfit). The repulsiveness here focuses on the horrible, malevolent actions and the slily delivered, revealing asides which makes Lady Anne's capitulation to his marriage proposal immediately after he's widowed her, a less than usual super challenging theatrical about-face.
Even Shakespeare neophytes won't have trouble knowing who's who in this trim two and a half hour (including intermission) production which opens by introducing key characters in a way that leaves no question about the familial connections This begins with Richard turning away from the upstage mirror, letting us see a psychologically as well as physically crippled man who, knowing he can't be a lover, will deliberately make himself into a villain. As the Machiavellian events move forward, director Kulick's emphasis on avoiding any confusion about who's who is further underscored by costume designer Oana Botez-Ban's color palette for the costumes. The long, uniform-like coats worn by all are non-specific in terms of historic period, but the colors are like cue cards. They range from somber gray, to royal blues, blazing reds and orange, plus pale yellow for the little saplings Richard will destroy along with everyone else.
Most of the actors play at least two roles with commendable distinction. The actresses portraying the older women — Maria Tucci as Queen Elizabeth, Roberta Maxwell as Queen Margaret and Judith Roberts as the Duchess of York— are magnificent. For Maxwell, this is familiar territory as she's been both Elizabeth and the Duchess of York in other productions. As Margaret she is the play's social and political conscience. Her impassioned lamentations are a cautionary note about the sort of social order that is ripe for bloodthirsty dictators and chillingly ambitious politicians like Buckingham (Michael Potts) and Hastings (Craig Baldwin).
At one point in the play Kulick and Cumpsty use the proximity of the audience to the stage to turn the "campaign" for crowning Richard into participatory theater, with Buckingham moving up and down the aisles shaking hands and handing out little flags for them to wave as if it were a Democratic or Republican presidential convention. The audience seemed to enjoy this pause in the blood and gore.
The mirror refracted rising and descending chandeliers work well even for Richard's ghost-filled dream on the battlefield and for that thrilling "kingdom for a horse" moment. All told, a stunning production of a forever stunning play.
For links to other Shakespeare plays we've reviewed, including other Richard III productions, check out our Shakespeare page.
The Playbill Broadway YearBook
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide