This quirky new production of Richard III, playing at the Classic Stage Company in New York City through December 9th, is without a doubt both intelligent and entertaining. It would, in fact, be a great starter Shakespeare play for the resistant or uninitiated classical theater-goer since the famous story is fairly easy to follow, and this group of talented performers is able to make the 16th century language accessible to 21st century audiences without dummying down. But anyone who comes to this production expecting a politically responsible play for our beleaguered era will be disappointed and possibly appalled. This Richard III is a black comedy played not for virtue, but for the vicarious thrill of down-and-dirty sport—although certain parallels to our present resonate. In fact, they're ironically driven home during an interactive scene in which Dastardly Dick's minions hand out cheesy souvenir flags to the audience, 99% of whom, including myself, mindlessly cheer on the new King-to-be.
Some of the stylistic themes/directorial choices occasionally seem illogical and inconsistent. Richard's demise, for instance, fires in the face of some famous advice from Chekhov. But at the same time, the perplexing "method behind the madness" co-direction by Brian Kulick and Michael Cumpsty is appealing because it also serves as a mirror of this particular Richard's frustrated, yet lively and imaginative interior world. Mark Wendland’s set and Brian H. Scott’s lighting design are innovative, efficient, and just plain stunning to the eye, utilizing chandeliers, mirrors, and flat glossy matting on the floor of the thrust stage, creating an eerie glow, in effect. There is very little in the way of props other than a long black table with matching black chairs on casters, a casket, and, oh yeah, a couple of axes and chopping blocks. I’m not sure what the vinyl Asian jacket costumes (by Oana Botez-Ban) or the Asian-fusion music in Jorge Muelle’s sound design have to do with the events of Richard III, nor do I particularly care because they are totally cool. Richard dons gray and black, as do the various assassins, and Margaret keeps her queenly gray gown covered by a tattered old tan trench coat (presumably that of her dead husband). But the other characters, mostly royalty, wear shiny solid colors, giving the play’s overall look the weird, cold, empty beauty of a Christmas tree you might see in the lobby of some evil mega-corporate building on Wall Street.
Performances are (for the most part) quite good. Some are terrific. This is, indeed, an ensemble cast of seasoned pros who are comfortable with the language, who work seamlessly together, and who do a real play (with and despite all of its many structural flaws) rather than just "doing Shakespeare" and sounding pretty. For some reason, Lady Anne, played by the exquisite K.K. Moggie, who also plays Mistress Shore and the Boy Prince, has an English accent here, but to the directors' credit, all other characters remain consistent to the distinctly American, almost Las Vegas-glitz take on the play, yet still manage to do justice to the beauty and poetry of the text. Of the supporting roles, Roberta Maxwell shows great strength as the grieving Queen Margaret, while the always fabulous Michael Potts clenches his role as Richard’s sycophantic right-hand henchman, the Duke of Buckingham. Paul Lazar and Steven Boyer as a duo of funny but chilling assassins in matching black glasses and futuristic hit man garb look like they stepped right out of a scene from The Matrix.
Michael Cumpsty in the title role has the delightfully wicked twinkle in his eye of a mean-spirited game show host who just can’t wait to gong the loser contestants. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is conflicted to be sure, but not necessarily in the moral sense when we first meet him. He just seems to want for once in his pathetic life to be the most memorable at something, no matter what it takes or who is sacrificed. Cumpsty gives his Richard some token physical impediments, but he nonetheless manages to strut even while limping. The hump is barely noticeable, and his “withered” arm only becomes an issue—and an amusing one at that—when Richard finds it handy. Cumpsty, who is tall, graceful, and movie star gorgeous, fortunately doesn’t dwell too much on trying to win our sympathy by portraying Richard as a wounded little victim of his own horrific but probably deluded self-image. No, this guy is one we all know, whether on the job or in the family. For all the charisma, the considerable intelligence and scathing wit that lend him an undeniable allure, this Richard is still a rude, crude, complete (fill in your own expletive) who, while sensing his own obnoxious behavior, still needs to cling to bratty superficial excuses for why people would reject or even hate him.
The most memorable moment in the play (the “bad news” of Act IV, scene 3) comes when Richard, now finally King with crown on head, sits all alone at the long table, hunched over a plate. His sense of self-loathing truly shines through, if only for a few seconds, as he wolfs down his supper, eyes darting about like a starving feral dog frightened of having his scraps of food stolen away. Beyond that, Cumpsty admirably keeps Richard’s vulnerability held in check until, of course, the night of (literally) haunted dreams.
Attention may waver a bit in the second half of this production, but this outlook likely has more to do with my usual grumbles about how the story was written rather than with any sight of weakness in production. While it does seem to take a long time to get to a welcome intermission (of only ten minutes and with only three ladies’ room stalls), the approximately 2:45 playing time goes by swiftly, resulting in a very well spent evening at the theatre.