Main Street Theatre’s elegantly cast and artfully staged rendition of Shakespeare's most popular history play is acted with such flawless attention to the verse that you have to wonder why director Guy Roberts would sully the grace of his Thespians by relying on TV pyrotechnics.
There are moments during the modernist co-production of Richard III by Main Street Theatre and Prague Shakespeare Festival when the clever use of cell phone conversations and wide-screen video enhance the suspense that builds toward the climactic battle between the arch-villain and Yorkist king, Richard III, and the future Henry VII, his Tudor successor. But these electronic effects, used deftly and sparingly early on, grow more indiscriminate and gratuitous throughout the show's second half.
After the show's intermission, SNL-style campaign ads with financial disclaimers elicit cheap laughs, laughs that are surprisingly unnecessary, because Shakespeare ensured that the 1,145 lines he wrote for Richard would offer viewers plenty of dark humor and comic relief.
From the moment when the evil Richard, Duke of Gloucester, declares: “Since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain,” we in the audience suspect what it takes the royal families of York and Lancaster much longer to figure out -- that the hobbled, hump-backed brother of the ailing King Edward IV will eventually claw his way to the throne after devious dissembling about his motives to all who would deter him.
Although Shakespeare has ensured that no modern spectator could possibly be disappointed by his deliciously Machiavellian anti-hero, this production is enriched in stunning ways by female actors who took firm command of signature lamentation scenes featuring Queen Margaret (a Lancastrian whose husband Henry VI was murdered by Richard), Queen Elizabeth (the queen consort married to the sitting Yorkist king), and Lady Anne (widow of Edward, Prince of Wales). Directors have often overlooked these scenes throughout the play’s performance history. Familiar set pieces featuring the imprisoned Duke of Clarence's dream sequence, the framing of Lord Hastings, and Richard's betrayal of the Duke of Buckingham are executed with depth and nuance, and aided in no small way by lighting designer Carrie Cavins's atmospheric enhancements.
In Shakespeare's version of Tudor history, the elder Queen Margaret is the only female character that is given enough depth to serve as the Duke of Gloucester's spiritual nemesis. After prophesying about the suffering Richard will cause the royal family, Margaret locks horns with the maladjusted duke in protracted verbal combat. Rebecca Greene Udden shows a vigorous command of Margaret's invective and stylized form of rhetoric, which is redolent of Greek tragedy. Formidable and poised, Udden mines the full potential of Margaret’s powerful role as Gloucester's adversary.
Performing Queen Elizabeth, Shannon Emerick offers an equally striking portrait of forthright, regal femininity. Emerick is a smooth and versatile interpreter on Houston stages, and seems just as comfortable playing a fifteenth-century monarch as she was depicting Natalie Herzen, the willful wife of a nineteenth-century radical in Main Street's recent showing of The Coast of Utopia. During Crystal O'Brien's first act scene as the bereaved Lady Anne, the actor's venomous rebuffs of Gloucester’s disingenuous wooing seem one-dimensional, but in later scenes when Anne senses her imminent death, the actor settles more gracefully into a nuanced interpretation. Such unevenness can certainly be forgiven during the April 25th preview performance that I saw. (It is unfortunate that on more than one occasion, Udden, Emerick, and O'Brien seemed in danger of tripping over the royal trains that were incongruously tacked onto their modern outfits.)
Interpreting the title role, Roberts seemed to be inspired by British actor Anthony Sher’s depiction of Richard’s profound physical handicap. Roberts wields metal crutches on both arms to suggest a strong parallel between Gloucester’s physical and spiritual deformity. Roberts's vision of the duke literally resembles a “bottled spider" and "poisonous hunch-back'd toad," epithets hurled at him by Queen Margaret. Roberts’s mastery of Gloucester's villainy is most impressive when he is wooing, cajoling, or persuading members of the court to do his bidding or aid in his plotting. But in uttering many of Richard’s memorable asides to the audience, the actor is prone to excessive hand gestures and unnecessary sawing of the air.
As the doomed Duke of Clarence, Seán Patrick Judge displays an emotional depth that is especially satisfying as he recounts his portentous dream. David Wald creates a portrait of the misguided Earl of Buckingham that is nuanced and freshly understated. Rutherford Cravens offers a robust vision of the framed Lord Hastings, and his rendering of the righteous, albeit feckless second murderer stands out in particular. Roberts's direction of other nobles in Gloucester's camp proves consistently entertaining: Jovan Jackson excels as James Tyrrel; Judge doubles effectively as Richard Ratcliffe; and Philip Hays seems unprepossessing as William Catesby. Jonathan Gonzalez’s rendering of the Archbishop, brother to Queen Elizabeth, is well explored. Elissa Levitt is excellent as the pathos-infused Duchess of York and the sensuous Jane Shore, Hastings’s mistress. Sarah Cravens delivers an impressively reserved depiction of the young Prince Edward. The only performance within this ensemble that came up short is Steve Zinkgraf's version of the ailing King Edward IV, which alternates between being wooden and downright inarticulate.
The Duke of Gloucester's seizure of the throne and impending battle with the future Henry VII at Bosworth Field are forecast in this staging using twenty-first-century political campaign-style commercials told on video from Richard's point of view. The sardonic tone of these commercials in early scenes is in keeping with the unabashed zeal with which Richard cavalierly dispenses with the lives of siblings and nephews whose rightful inheritance of England's throne stands in his way. However, during the play's final scenes, the production’s tendency to intersperse these video interludes amid a succession of live bloody murders undercuts the build-up of tragic emotion.
Overall, despite the mood-shattering special effects spliced into the show’s second half, this co-production is one of the best interpretations of Richard III that Houston has seen in many years.
Richard III, a co-production of Houston’s Main Street Theatre and the Prague Shakespeare Festival, will be performed from April 21 - May 13, 2012 at Main Street Theatre -Chelsea Market, and in Prague, Czech Republic, from June 14-16, 2012. General admission is $20. For tickets, call 713-524-6706 or visit www.mainstreettheater.com to book tickets online.