Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of Richard III takes a weighty historical play and makes it delightfully accessible for a modern American audience in Buffalo, NY.
Through some choice bits of stage craft, from an introductory pantomime explaining Richard’s character to a battle riddled with marching ghosts, founding director Saul Elkin’s touch welcomes even the most casual of Shakespearean audiences into a part of British history plagued with royal rogues.
Elkin’s choice to stage the play circa the late 1950s, complete with fedoras, busy street sounds and strands of pearls, is inspired. Richard’s followers come off as so many “made men” or “wise guys,” always ready to betray a former ally for survival. Now that’s a bad guy American audiences can understand.
And as for the chief bad guy, he’s played with great depth by Timothy Newell, who has been acting on Buffalo stages for 17 years. Newell brings Richard’s evil lust for the throne to life, presenting a charismatic leader one minute, an unctuous suitor another and a sarcastic plotter above all.
When he plants an unwanted kiss on his brother’s widow, Queen Elizabeth (regally played by Eileen Dugan), after demanding that she make her young daughter available for him to marry, the audience can’t help but recoil.
Yet Newell never makes Richard into an over-the-top caricature of a villain. The prologue pantomime helps illuminate the twisted body of his twisted character. Richard’s two aides (Andrew Kittler and Todd Fuller, who also play murderer one and two) assist him in removing his dressing robe, thus unveiling his hump, and then into military uniform, reminiscent of Gestapo garb. In this extended scene, Kottler massages Richard’s twisted limb and carefully straightens each coiled finger, eliciting a gasp of pain from Richard.
Then, instead of a spoken prologue or – as they do it in the movies – a scrolling synopsis of the historical moment, Richard clicks on a radio and hears a broadcast about recent "wars of the roses" that bring him and the audience up to speed.
Newell is clearly the standout here. His slight build seems perfect for the role, and Mary McMahon’s makeup adds darkness to one side of his face, suggesting both dark scars on his character and a two-faced nature. Despite depicting Richard’s infirmities so clearly, Newell also demonstrates Richard’s unswerving passion. He woos the widow Anne with a kiss, and then meticulously wipes his mouth as soon as she leaves.
He is well-matched by his bloodless best cheerleader, Buckingham, played by character actor Robert Rutland. Buckingham seems to take great glee in Richard’s mayhem until the moment that Richard asks him to join in his beyond-the-pale plot to murder his two young nephews and heirs to the throne, Edward and York. Then Rutland’s swagger turns stammering and careful.
Costume designer Donna Massimo dresses the witch-like Queen Margaret (Lisa Vitrano) in anachronistic and ragged Victorian mourning garb, deftly setting her apart from Richard’s court and putting the ancientness of her grudge on exhibit. Vitrano shoulders the mantle of grief and anger well, her voice reaching glass-etching sharpness when she delivers the curse that foreshadows Richard’s murders and his eventual failure.
Sadly, when this moment is echoed later in the play by the Duchess of York (Colleen Neuman) cursing her surviving son, Richard, Neuman does not match the intensity. In the performance we saw, she lost her way in the dialogue, repeating a section.
Christopher Cavanaugh’s set, evoking industrial buildings of the Lancaster & Sons and YRK Inc. companies, is not especially well used. A second story is all but ignored for the first half of the play and then used almost as an afterthought a few times after the intermission.
But these faults are upstaged by excellent choices in editing the dialogue, direction, and even the sound design, which includes original music by Tom Maker as well as sound effects of rain.
The final battle scene is especially well crafted. Ghosts of all of Richard’s victims march relentlessly across the battlefield, looking like so many white-faced and macabre ducks in a shooting gallery as Richard and Richmond (an appropriately earnest and beatific Tom Wrath) fight with swords. The appearance of each ghost seems to take an emotional potshot at the flagging Richard before Richmond strikes the final blow.
Fittingly, Elkin trimmed the play to end at the moment Richmond pronounces Richard dead. It’s a moment of triumph for an experienced director and for the audience he whips into disgust over the evil king.