Set at the end of Britain's War of the Roses, Shakespeare's Richard III opens on the various factions trying to bury the hatchet and move on, with both sides shaking hands and smiling through their teeth. This state of affairs does not suit the vile Richard, duke of Gloucester, who will kill or seduce whomever he must to gain the throne. Sleazy and physically awkward though he is, he can kill and seduce with equal ease.
One of Shakespeare's most gleeful villains, Richard is bloodthirstier than Iago and untroubled by Macbeth's scruples. He does resemble these others, of course; like Iago, he begins the play by turning his charm on the audience, directly drawing them into his plans. Like Macbeth, as he gains power, he also becomes more paranoid, and eventually sees ghosts. But where the other two plays are notable for their trim, streamlined structures you really don't need to know either history or genealogy to follow what's going on this one is packed with kings, dukes, and queens who are alive, dead, or moving from one state to the other. Things can get confusing fast.
This is a challenge Subterranean Shakespeare addresses unsatisfactorily in an otherwise elegant production at the Berkeley Art Center. It's difficult to keep track of who's who, especially since several of the actors play multiple characters. Costume and vocal variety, the first two things directors and actors can do to keep characters distinct, are largely absent, and director Jeremy Cole has some of the actors doing very distracting side business. The problem comes to a head in the final battle, in which the generals of their two armies switch back and forth, everything is muddy, and the confrontation between Richard and Richmond is a letdown.
That said, it's stronger overall than the run of SubShakes' work. This cast is more evenly matched than those of some of the company's other shows, and there is a clear directorial vision evident. Cole handles the dream sequence cleverly, using the jackets representing Richard's victims, and the pacing is good.
Although she is referred to as lunatic by other characters, in this interpretation Queen Margaret standing out from the rest in a bright red dress is calm, cool, and painfully sane, dishing out the curses left and right. Jean Forsman's Margaret is awesome, so much so that she gets used in places other directors haven't allowed, reappearing every time a character she's cursed realizes that the curse is coming true. Kerry Gudjohnsen's Queen Elizabeth comes into her own after Richard has killed her sons. Curled into a dramatically sculptural ball on the floor, she becomes incandescent in her misery, a striking contrast to the haughtiness of the first act. And the final queen, Lady Anne, is given a smoky intensity by Tiffany Harrison, who also gives the play one of its few light moments when she shows up as one of Elizabeth's sons.
Besides Charlie Goldenhawk Reaves as Richard and Brian Levy and Edward Norton as his pet assassins (Norton looks as if he's straight out of a British thug film), the men are not as distinct as the women. Reaves sure looks the part, with his stubble, greasy hair, and earrings, and he has a truly wicked laugh. Yet there's little subtlety in his menacing, over-the-top Richard.
It is possible for this play to be both nasty and fun, a point Woman's Will made last summer. But there is very little that is fun about this particular production, other than the scene with Elizabeth's two young doomed sons, and Richard's assassins pretending to be priests. No, this is a Very Serious Production, complete with lots of black clothes and live violin accompaniment that grows more atonal and disjointed as the story progresses. Relentlessly grim and atmospheric, this one is for people who believe that palace intrigue is as much hell as war is.
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