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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
For those (like me) who feel contemporary stagings of Shakespeare -- the kind that utilizes lots of modern gimmicks -- are oftentimes contrivances intended to mask a lack of ability, Moonwork Theater's presentation of Richard III stands as an exception to the rule. For those who (as I did) look at the producers and creative team of this production and suspect it is some sort of family affair (no pun intended), they too are in for a big surprise. Everything in this production works; most of it works quite well. Walking by the Public Theater after this performance (it's right next door) reminded me that, in the right hands, low-budget Shakespeare can be as powerful as its big budget cousin.
The "power generator" credit for this production goes to its director, Moonwork Artistic Director Gregory Wolfe. He understands that the universality of Shakespeare demands a certain faithfulness to the original that must be balanced with any enhancements in the name of accessibility. His solution brings the play into familiar terrain for a contemporary audience without forsaking the Elizabethan original. (We should also remember that it was Shakespeare who first presented Shakespeare in "modern" dress, and that he did so to make it accessible.)
Wolfe's basic concept is that pomp and circumstance has been supplanted by a corporate culture, and that television has become a dominant means of communication. The only "throne" is the swivel chair next to which the remote control is kept; an enormous television screen is encased in perhaps the largest gilt frame I've ever seen.
The staging, billed as a multi-media event, exploits every advantage and technique this approach provides. It succeeds when it is in the service of the story and not as an end in itself. The most compelling moments generally take place on stage, and the video is not permitted to interfere. (Compare with the recently-opened production of The Capeman on Broadway, where chilling video footage sometimes seems to upstage the live performance. A link to CurtainUp's review can be found below.) The stage of the Stella Adler theater is exceedingly deep, and is used to great effect both in staging and also in creating some of the epic feel this play sometimes requires. Occasionally, as in the coffin scene ( I, 2), the priorities are reversed -- the technology seems to be used just to show it off -- and the scene loses something in the video translation.
These mis-steps are infrequent. Scene after scene succeeds in cleverly solving the problems and reaching the objectives that confront the director's vision of the play. We see emotional use of multimedia as history marches off the stage and onto the television screen; poignantly, we are shown Richard, live, as he watches young Elizabeth on cable news as she goes to Richmond. Yet, there is also an interesting mini-ballet onstage for Clarence's murder scene; the bedlam of the battle scenes is recreated thrillingly on the stage with video only as backdrop; and the terror of Richard's confrontations with the ghosts he has created relies entirely on very effective old-fashioned stagecraft.
The enormous assembled cast also deserves a great deal of the credit, starting, not surprisingly, with Richard (Gregory Sherman). Sherman embraces Shakespeare's language without trepidation but with a contemporary voice that avoids any pretention of an accent or of the kind of stentorian delivery that frightens away inexperienced ears. He accomplishes this without sacrificing the Richard's frightening evil. (No easy feat.) This sets the tone and cadence which the rest of the cast (with one or two exceptions that stand out like sore thumbs) follows. The acting is almost uniformly very good, a fact which makes no small contribution to the overall achievement here. Particular standouts are Robert Bowen, Jr. as Catesby, Mason Pettit as Buckingham and Lisa Jacobsen as Margaret.
This is also a production in which credit must be given to the video team, headed by Director of Photography Hugh Walsh. They have produced very realistic recreations of news footage, not-so-clear satellite transmissions on a computer window and the like. Kudos are also due to the sound designer/composer, Andrew Sherman, whose work very successfully creates moods and environments to great dramatic effect.
In a season suddenly replete with productions of the Richard plays, this one ought not be ignored.