Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Baltimore, Maryland
Saturday, March 4, 2017, A–2&4 (front right of stage)
Directed by Ian Gallanar
Richard III (Vincen Eisenson) quickly grows sour of his newly gained monarchy in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's World War I–era production of William Shakespeare's Richard III. Below, Clarence (Ron Heneghan, right) tells his dream to Brackenbury (Bart Debicki). Photos by Teresa Castracane, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
A soldier in a World War I army overcoat and gas mask stands guard on a platform above King Edward IV presiding over the signing of peace pacts among the factions in his court. Lord Rivers is gassed to death, rather than losing his head, at Pomfret. Young Duke of York plays with a toy Red Baron triplane. Preshow entertainment features music hall songs from the 1910s and '20s written by William Hargreaves (husband of a Baltimore-native singer), including "The Night I Appeared As Macbeth," along with a 1915 American pacifist hit "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier."
This is the world of William Shakespeare's Richard III at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC). The company's founding artistic director, Ian Gallanar, first staged his version of Richard III in 2012 as a movable production at CSC's then primary venue, the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park in Ellicott City, Maryland. It was "one of CSC's most talked-about productions," Gallanar writes in his program notes. "Audiences loved it, and that's why we've brought the production indoors," into the company's 2-year-old theater in downtown Baltimore. Many of the same actors reprise their roles, most notably Vince Eisenson as Richard.
Five years on, however, the production seems thematically out of sync, if not with the times at least with itself. The World War I trappings—a monolith-like set by Daniel O'Brien, costumes by Heather C. Jackson—are just that: trappings with no obvious allegorical resonance except that war is bad for everyone but Richard who complains that "I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time." Meanwhile, some character portrayals don't line up with Shakespeare's text, in part because of unusual choices in cuts, while a lack of consistent vision results in dramatic opportunities going by the wayside.
The teddy bear, for example. Queen Elizabeth (Lesley Malin, who is CSC's managing director) carries a teddy bear as she with the Duchess of York (Greta Boeringer) and Lady Anne (Lizzi Albert) intend to visit her young princes in the Tower of London. After Brakenbury (Bart Debicki) tells them he cannot let them enter by order of "the king" (Richard, not yet crowned), Malin's Elizabeth gives Brakenbury the teddy bear, ostensibly to pass on to one of her young sons. It's the last we see of the bear, meaning a lost opportunity for a heart-rending shock if Tyrell had carried it on stage after he murders the princes, perhaps even using the teddy bear as a prop when he describes the murders. Instead, we get only Kelsey Painter, wearing old military goggles and playing Tyrrell as a clownish sort, telling us "the tyrannous and bloody deed is done" (it was acted out for us in silhouette behind a screen at the back of the stage) before fawning over Richard.
Textual cuts (some just a couple of lines, so not really time-savers) reshape scenes and muddy character development. Cut is Richard's instruction to the pallbearers on where to take Henry VI's corpse, a not-so-superfluous matter given how the pallbearers are on stage the entire time watching Richard seduce Lady Anne and would have been visibly appalled by his subsequent duplicity. Cut is the discussion among the court factions in the wake of King Edward's death about sending a small force to fetch the Prince of Wales from Ludlow to London, the point at which Richard and Buckingham (Scott Alan Small) set the trap to wipe out Elizabeth's family. Cut are so many lines leading up to and in the coronation council scene at the Tower that leave Hastings (Dave Gamble) appearing more conniving than naive, dulling his tragic end with Richard's out-of-nowhere rage.
Kept, however, is Edward IV (Frank B. Moorman), immediately after learning that his imprisoned brother Clarence has been killed, being accosted by Derby suddenly entering (unaware of the king's consternation) and pleading a pardon for his servant who "slew a righteous gentlemen." I laud Gallanar for keeping this passage, as Edward's speech is a thematic crux in the play, a wailing meditation on right and wrong, justice and mercy, and family fealty—all principles that his other brother, Richard, is already trampling. However, because he cut out Derby altogether, the job of pleading instigator is assigned to Dorset (Scott Farquhar), already on stage watching the king's consternation unfold and stupidly choosing this most inappropriate moment for his self-centered outburst.
The production has a 22-member cast, so actors are available to play Derby in this scene, but Gallanar avoids doubling any but the most minor of parts. In addition to Derby, gone is the Bishop of Ely (and his strawberries) along with the other high priests—this production puts Hastings in charge of wresting the Duke of York from Elizabeth in sanctuary. Gone, too, is Margaret; that's not unusual, but the more I see this play, the more hollow are those productions without her. Gallanar does double the children: Mia Boydston plays Edward, Prince of Wales, and Gareth Swing is Richard, Duke of York, and both also play Clarence's children in a scene with the Duchess of York, a scene played in silhouette backstage behind a screen with the echoing voices. I get that the same pair of actors playing different children in scenes so close together can be confusing, but no more confusing than staging the Duchess with children scene in a garbled dreamlike manner—might as well cut it out altogether; I recall seeing this scene played only one other time in the 16 previous stage productions of this Richard III I've attended.
Another questionable piece of stage business comes when Richard appears before the people of London "betwixt two sisters" (instead of "churchmen" in the text). Replacing monks with nuns is no matter, but these two nuns behave with such affectionate mugging toward Richard as if they'd been snatched off a corner of Soho and told to dress in a different habit for the while. This earns big laughs in the audience, but one of these nuns we've already seen consoling Queen Elizabeth upon the death of her husband. Real nun or no?
Textual divergence most taints the portrayal of Elizabeth. Geared more to the Downton Abbey timeframe than Shakespeare's frame of mind, Malin's Elizabeth takes a passive-aggressive approach to power, delivering her lines in feminine flightiness or scheming sweetness. It's hard to tell if the intended portrayal is of a woman caught up in a world of political skulduggery beyond her wits or is one of those skulduggerers relying on her own brand of duplicity. Neither is the intent of Shakespeare, who lines Elizabeth with steely resolve while his duplicitous characters always tell the audience up front of their intents (Elizabeth gets no such soliloquy). In her final scene, in which Richard courts her help in his marrying her daughter, Malin switches on a dime from grief and anger to seductive coyness, then leaves with a victorious smugness in her expression. The intent is to hint that she has ultimately foiled him (or, like Anne, actually fallen for him), a reading that can only be attained by Gallanar's cutting the last portion of their dialogue as Richard levels his final, convincing ultimatum, illustrating his intent to destroy all, including himself, if he doesn't get his way. Certainly, making Elizabeth a conniving foil might be a more comfortable option for the audience, but I doubt seductive coyness really works with the Richard Gloucesters and Kim Jong-uns of this world.
With its lack of consistency and textual affinity, the play ends up being a giant slalom course for Eisenson to navigate his Richard. We've long admired Eisenson's work, and last year became gushing fans over his Mercutio for CSC's Romeo and Juliet and his Bassanio and Tubal for Faction of Fools' commedia del arte Merchant of Venice. On almost every outing, Eisenson's characters resonate within his poetic mastery of Shakespeare's verses. However, while his Richard shows flashes of brilliance, he can't seem to maintain a consistent groove.
His best moments come in his courting of Lady Anne. Richard admits he'll be play-acting in this scene, but Eisenson's Richard goes off-script at some key moments. First, when he bandies with Anne after she asserts that he is "unfit for any place but hell." "Yes, one place else, if you will hear me name it," he says. "Some dungeon," she suggests, but he responds with gloating exuberance, "Your bed-chamber" as if he had just scored with her big time, overlooking her deep-felt scorn. She ends up spitting at him. This so genuinely shocks him he slips into a lethal demeanor, a cobra ready to pounce. She stands her ground, though, and as he slowly readjusts, he begins looking inward, revealing to Anne his ongoing grief over the deaths of his brother, Rutland, and father, York, at the hands of the Lancasters. This is real anguish—though, perhaps, Eisenson's Richard is exaggerating it for Anne's sake—and she is moved, seeing that she is not the only victim of great tragedy in these wars. It's the tipping point in her ultimate capitulation to his love suit, though her proffering Richard a loving kiss on the lips is a surprising piece of stage business.
It is thus so to Richard as much as to us. "Was ever woman in this humor woo'd? Was ever woman in this humor won?" he cries triumphantly. Typical of Eisenson, utterance of such famous lines lead into his incisive readings of the subsequent verses. "Ha!" he shouts with true astonishment. "I do mistake my person all this while. Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot, myself to be a marvelous proper man." He can't believe it himself! As he brags of his intent to hire tailors to better adorn his body, Eisenson is tapping into Richard's deep-down insecurities which occasionally bubble up in Henry VI, Part Three, and resurface again in his last soliloquy in this play. He gives us another glimpse of it when he glows amazedly as the crowd shouts "Long Live Richard!" after his coronation. Eisenson reaches these heights again in his final, schizophrenic soliloquy, his confident, villainous self encountering a powerful opponent he never saw coming, his insecure, disparaged (even by his own mother) self.
A similar self-revealing speech from another character proves to be the production's highlight, that of Clarence (Ron Heneghan) revealing his dream to his jailor, Brakenbury. Heneghan relives his nightmare through the hollow-eyed frowns in his face and the trembling teacup in his hand. Though Debicki's Brakenbury initially makes light of Clarence's preoccupation with a mere dream—"Had you such leisure in the time of death to gaze upon the secrets of the deep?" he scoffs—he eventually becomes absorbed in Clarence's recounting.
Other performances leave worthy impressions, too. Boydston plays a seriously studious young Edward. Patrick Miller as the Mayor of London enters as a glad-handing politician, pointing and waving to individuals in the audience. Gregory Burgess is Gregory Burgess playing Lord Stanley. A CSC mainstay, Burgess usually imbues his roles with a casual groovy shtick, a self-awareness that he's an actor in a community theater production delighting a familiar audience. This makes for an endearing Stanley. His easy laughs and indifferent "uh-huh" responses to Richard's orders are not only funny but indicate his means of survival: who can take this guy seriously? Yet he is responsible for the production's most subtly chilling moment when, as the women standing before the Tower have just learned that Richard is calling himself king, Stanley shows up to retrieve Anne for her coronation. Elizabeth then tells Dorset to escape England and join up with Richmond. "Full of wise care is this your counsel, madam," Stanley says, but Burgess doesn't address her or Dorset directly; rather, he stands behind Anne and speaks to the ground, his advice a voice-over while not drawing attention to himself (this Stanley would survive such a Richard even in the age of surveillance cameras).
Stanley also insists on going through the proper motions when he bestows his wife's blessings on her son and his stepson, Richmond. Jager's Richmond humors him and gets on his knees while Stanley delivers the blessing. This brief episode creates the warmest display between Stanley and Richmond I've ever seen, and it drives home both Stanley's courageous conspiratorial resistance to Richard and Richmond's good-hearted nature, so readily evident in the entirety of Jager's performance—until his last speech. His Bosworth Field fight with Eisenson's Richard is brilliantly performed (fight choreographer Christopher Niebling even incorporates ground combat, legs and all), and during the scuffle, Richard wounds Richmond in the arm. Afterward, crowned by Stanley, Richmond gives the play's closing speech, promising an end to civil broils through his marriage to Elizabeth's daughter. As Jagar's delivery becomes unrelentingly intense, he bears his wounded left arm crooked and close to his side, fist clinched in pain—the same position and with the same posture as Eisenson's Richard.
It's a haunting vision, but one wiped away as the rest of the cast emerge to sing the 1915 soldier's song, "Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag (And Smile, Smile, Smile)":
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile,
While you've a lucifer to light your fag,
Smile, boys, that's the style.
What's the use of worrying?
It never was worth while, so
Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag,
And smile, smile, smile.
They sing it as a dirge. It's a conundrum of an epilogue for this production.
March 10, 2017