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Richard III

Richard III and the Zombies

Washington Shakespeare Company, Artisphere Black Box Theater, Arlington, Va.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Directed by Jay Hardee and Christopher Henley

Every Richard I’ve seen has an indelible moment particular to that play and that actor’s interpretation of the character. Usually these come in the opening soliloquy (Anthony Sher catapulting to the front of the stage on his crutches or Ian McKellen singlehandedly pulling on a glove) or in the wooing of Lady Anne (honey-tongued McKellen all pathos or Sher audaciously overwhelming the woe-wracked woman).

Frank Britton’s Richard had his moments, too, but not in the above scenes. There was too much other business going on during his opening soliloquy to pay Richard much heed, and he and Mundy Spears’ punk-styled Anne just never seemed to connect. Instead, this Richard had an electric scene with Elizabeth (Karen Novack) over the wooing of her daughter, ending with a kiss that left Elizabeth uncertain of whether to give in to Richard, defy him, or wait and see how the coming battle turned out. Then came the moment of Richard awaking from his night of bad dreams, a near minute of silence Britton delivered with eyes frantically trying to sort his way to full consciousness. It was acting by stillness and expression, and it was spot-on. Notably, both of these moments occurred near the end of the play, which meant, compared to all those great Richards I’ve seen before, this one alone provided riveting theater through its final half hour.

And I haven’t even mentioned the zombies, yet.

What was most notable about this production was its setting as a post-apocalyptic future and walk-on-the-wild-side-style costuming. Directors Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee presented a landscape of tattooed characters reminiscent of Escape from New York or Mad Max in which governing was all about personal resourcefulness and accumulating power by any means that will both trump others and save your own neck. Whereas Barbara Papendorp’s Catesby used a PDA as both an asset for Richard and shield against his wrath (she’d hold it up as if to say “it’s the iPhone’s fault!”), Buckingham, in a bravura performance by Adrienne Nelson, made an amoral rush into facilitating Richard until, at last, a moral stall led to her fall. Hastings alone, as played by Joe Palka, was ill-equipped to fully understand the tidal nature of politics.

Henley and Hardee made a couple of other key choices that enriched this Richard III. One was to not merely have women playing male roles but to turn Buckingham, Catesby, and Stanley into women’s roles. It makes sense that a coterie of courtiers in the future would include women, but this also helped bring to the fore the sexual politics inherent in the play. This is in no way meant to denigrate the part of the queens. The always-watchful Elizabeth ably matched Richard in his chess game, understanding better than anybody that sexual politics could literally create a king. Meanwhile, Charlotte Akin played Margaret as an Edward Albee Martha, martini in hand, slurring curses and spitting venom until the moment of her greatest triumph—lording over the woes of Elizabeth and the duchess—didn’t give her the satisfaction she thought it would, and so she let a little empathy ooze through her mascara’d veneer.

Another effective devise was bringing Richard’s ghosts on stage throughout the course of the play, suggesting that it was Richard’s choices that haunted him, not merely the spirits of his victims. The fact that these were more zombies than ghosts was cause for some concern (Richmond seemed more in danger of becoming dinner rather than falling before Henry VII), but at least these were ghosts that could truly strike fear into Richard. If you had a dream like that, you’d sit bolt upright and spend a minute crawling back to consciousness, too.

Eric Minton
November 30, 2010

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