Richard II and Richard III
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A CurtainUp Review
Richard II and III
By Elyse Sommer
Editor's Note: Brazilian-born and London trained director Ron Daniels has already staged three Hamlets -- one with Mark Rylance, one with Roger Rees and a third in Tokyo, in Japanese! So it was time to find a new challenge when approaching the Bard. Enter Jeffrey Horowitz, artistic director of Off-Broadway's Theatre for a New Audience. He and Daniels hatched the idea that it would be enlightening -- and fun -- to stage Richard II and Richard III in repertory. And that's just what TFANA's doing, Jan. 17-April 5. Each play stands alone and while there's a discount for those who buy tickets for both shows, audiences are free to see either or both.
I opted to see both plays in two big three-hour bites and found it a most satisfying meal and not at all wearying too much of a good thing. Which Richard would I recommend if your time and budget allows for watching just one? Normally, I'd say Richard II because it's less frequently performed even though one of Shakespeare's most subtle and poetically rich plays. However, the Pearl Theater has also scheduled a production starring one of its regulars, Bradford Cover, so it boils down to acquainting yourself with the less familiar Richard II or watching the villain of villains every actor aspires to play.
To paraphrase a tad from My Fair Lady, if you want to brush up on your Shakespeare get thee to the church (at St. Clement's) in time to catch the Theater For New Audience's exuberantly staged and acted version of Richard II and Richard III. These two kings, one weak and foolish and the other evil incarnate, actually didn't succeed each other but were bookends to several Kings named Henry also dramatized by Shakespeare. No matter. What prompted director Ron Daniels to pair the plays was the fascinating contrast between two doomed monarchs. Richard II was a king by virtue of the divine right of kings and thus God's elected deputy. Richard III rode his way to power on the devil's back. If you had to liken them to contemporary men in power, you might say Richard II, like many modern leaders, stumbled on the sword of greed and lack of will. Richard III comes closer to such super villains as Hitler and Saddam Hussein. Besides revolving around two powerful if very different central personalities these two history plays also make for interesting examples of Shakespeare at his most subtle and his most extravagantly flamboyant.
None of the nuances in this repertory billing would work if Daniels had not ably directed the two Richards to clearly portray their differences. In Richard II Stephen Skybell gives a sensitive performance as the weak and unwise Divine Rights monarch. He may lack the voice timbre of some of the best known past interpreters of Shakespeare's major characters but his always clear delivery is exactly what's likely to attune new audiences to words that impress themselves on the heart as well as the ear. The scene in which he surrenders his crown is wrenching. Unlike the Edwardian actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm who once had the king accompanied by a dog who was trained to turn from Richard to lick Bolingbroke's hand, Skybell needs no tricky devices to make his mark as a man ceding his power.
Christopher McCann, who as the wicked De Flores in TFANA's last production, The Changeling moved like a slithering snake, here leaps and hops about like a bloody spider, the embodiment of Queen Margaret's act 1, scene 2 outraged "Why strew'st thou sugar on that bottled spider whose deadly web ensnareth thee about?" His cunning "Crookback" with his leering and gleeful asides to the audience is at times so over the top that audiences may have more of a sense of watching a comedy macabre than a tragedy of evil. This is underscored by the scenes where he rolls the throne out of a curtained recess and triumphantly retrieves the royal crown, orb and scepter from another part of the stage.
This being a repertory production, those attending both plays will be fascinated to watch Skybell and McCann switch royal seats. Before donning the leather strap he uses to expedite his crooked spider's body and the red leather coat that symbolizes his bloody reign, McCann plays Bolinboke the king's enemy and usurper with a Machiavellian steeliness. Skybell shifts fluidly from powerful and deposed king, to fatally ambitious king's confidant (Lord Buckingham).
The TFANA ensemble is equally adept at filling multiple roles. Their work is so uniformly good and the cast too large to comment on every member. Among the standouts, there's Robert Stattel as John of Gaunt who does full justice to his famous speech about England ("Me thinks I am a prophet new inspired. . .") and also gives a strong reading of Lord Hastings in Richard III. The plays' four suffering queens deliver their wails and laments with great style. Sharon Scruggs, who appears only in Richard II as Elizabeth, is particularly impressive. Helmar Augustus Cooper's ringing voice sends forth poetic lines like "His tongue is now a stringless instrument" (to announce old Gaunt's death) with both casual ease and grandeur. His Archbishop of Canterbury lends as strong a presence to the second play as his Northumberland does to the first.
No review of either of these plays would be complete with recognizing the contribution to the design team. Neal Patel's multi-purpose set, adroitly lit by Donald Holder, is notable for the circular unit which functions as a great stained glass window that opens up dramatically in the second part of the first play and is blasted open (as the Wars of the Roses blasted England out of its tranquility?) as a second stage on which the wily Richard feigns religious piety and indifference to being crowned. Constance Hoffman's non period specific costumes are great fun -- from the long coats in the first play to the leather regalia in the second and the knight-like hoods worn in both.
Not to be overlooked is Michael Philip Ward's original music which serves as a fitting overture to each scene. Finally there's the reassuring listing of a fight director (B. H. Barry) to allay any concerns about the actors' safety during the sword play.
Readers might also want to check out Les Gutman's review of a multimedia Richard III which he found to be surprisingly effective.richmult and our double review of last year's TFANA's production of The Changeling by Elyse Sommer and by Joan Eshkenazi.