Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater

We’ll probably never have a chance like this again. Within the space of a year and a half we were so fortunate as to catch three extraordinary and distinctly different productions of Richard III — most recently at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, where the play was a showpiece for Kevin Spacey. We can report that Spacey is not only a highly accomplished classical actor, but also – no surprise – a natural-born entertainer.

The first Richard III that we saw was a August 2010 production at Shakespeare and Company, in Lenox, Massachusetts. As we noted in this post, the Lenox show seemed to us to be as much a set of varied dramatic pieces, each with its own unique entertainment value, than as a dramatized “story” – more of a “show” than what we have come to think a “play” should be. Elizabethan performances of Richard III may well have been much like this; the “quarto” edition of Richard III described the play as

The Tragedie of King Richard the third.
Conteining his treacherous Plots against his brother
Clarence: the pittifull murther of his innocent Ne-
phews: his tyrannical usurpation: with the
whole course of his detested life, and
most deserved death

This show at Lenox didn’t seem fragmented; each scene had oomph, and the total effect was intensely satisfying. Moreover, while Richard (an excellent John Douglas Thompson) necessarily had more of the spotlight than the other actors, this was emphatically an ensemble performance.

Then, in June 2011, we took in a second Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario, where we see most of our Shakespeare. Perhaps surprisingly, considering that Richard was played by a woman (Seana McKenna), the director took a much more traditional approach to the play. As we noted in this post, this production, with its clear narrative and controlled emotional arc, was a character study in self-destructive behavior.

Then, in early March, we were able to catch one of the final performances of Richard III at the BAM Harvey Theater, in Brooklyn, a production that served largely to showcase the talents of Kevin Spacey.  A lot of the time, television or movie stars are cast in Broadway plays simply as box-office attractions, irrespective of acting ability, but that was obviously not the case with the star of American Beauty, who is among other things co-director of the Old Vic, the London classical theater company that was a co-producer of the production at the BAM Harvey Theater.

To say that Mr. Spacey was a “ham” would be unfair, but he dominated every scene in which he appeared, including the ones in which he mostly just stood around. His prancing, mocking, leering, sweating (lots of sweat), and boasting were endlessly entertaining, and we were riveted by the spectacle of Richard’s becoming progressively unhinged by paranoia and the corruption of boundless power. Mr. Spacey often spoke directly to the audience, making us complicit in his misogyny and sociopathic ambition. His performance was all the more impressive because of the physical demands of playing Richard with a shoulder hump, a badly deformed leg, and a severe limp.

The rest of the large cast supported Spacey well, although not many supporting actors stood out. We particularly appreciated Annabel Scholey as Anne, the new widow whom Richard artfully persuades to marry him, and Haydn Gwynne as Queen Elizabeth, who wins the rhetorical battle with Richard over whether she should help him woo her daughter, but loses the war to Richard’s superior emotional strength.

Like way too many other productions of Shakespeare these days, this Richard III was set in “modern” times. The characters wore twentieth-century clothes and used electronic technology, and the crippled Richard wore a steel brace on his leg. Mr. Spacey accompanied the lines of Shakespeare with gestures and vocal expressions that are unmistakably part of today’s Brit-American culture (and which didn’t line up with the play’s 1920s setting). The show’s lavish use of blood and gore surely owed much to the gross-out violence we’ve gotten used to in our movies.

Yet even though horses have not been part of Western warfare for 100 years, Richard was still willing, at the play’s end, to trade his kingdom for a horse! My wife says she likes contemporary touches like Mr. Spacey’s in a Shakespeare production. But we still fail to see why a play about 15th-century historical figures should not be set in the 15th century.

These three productions each nailed Richard III, but for different reasons. If you value productions of Shakespeare that try to connect Shakespeare with contemporary culture (personally, we don’t much see the point), and if you enjoy bravura acting (we love it), the BAM’s Richard III, with Kevin Spacey, was the pick of the three.

If what you value most is the language of the Bard and actors who can extract maximum meaning from a speech, the Richard III at Stratford takes the prize. Seana McKenna’s was the best acting performance of the three Richards – subtle, conniving, compelling, and complex.  She even looked the part more than either Kevin Spacey or John Douglas Thompson.

But the Richard III we’d most like to see again is the one we saw in Lenox. We felt that we’d experienced just what the playwright had in mind when, early in his career, he wrote these scenes in the life of Richard – a grand, exuberant pageant with verbal duels, rapier duels, laments, family quarrels, ghosts, shock talk, seductions, horror scenes, and buffoonery. The supporting cast in the Lenox show also succeeded best at fleshing out the distinctive personalities of each of the minor characters.

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Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.

We preview the Stratford Festival’s 2011 season

In 2010 fanfares still reminded theater-goers at the Festival Theater in Stratford that a show was about to begin

It was a decent 2010 season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, though not a great one.  As chronicled in this blog, we saw only one truly memorable show (a marvelously acted The Winter’s Tale) and only two that we could rate as solidly entertaining (Kiss Me, Kate and Two Gentlemen From Verona).  Three were disappointing in various respects (The Tempest, Peter Pan, and Dangerous Liaisons), and As You Like It) was an outright stinker. We know they hardly ever do this — but The Winter’s Tale was so good that we can only hope that the management will consider reviving the production in 2012.  We’d see it again in a heartbeat.

We had fun pointing out how political correctness sucked some of the joy out of Peter Pan (see this post), and we wouldn’t have missed Christopher Plummer as Prospero (see this one).  Mr. Plummer isn’t scheduled to be back at Stratford in 2011.  But if he returns in 2012 we’d love to see him as the Duke in Measure for Measure.  We were reading the play recently and could hear, in our mind’s ear, Mr. Plummer’s rich baritone delivering the Duke’s lines. Update (12-13-10): We saw that Mr. Plummer told a Toronto drama critic recently that last summer’s Prospero would be his last Shakespeare role, because there weren’t any more age-appropriate roles he hadn’t done. We hope he changes his mind.

There will still be four Shakespeare plays on the 2011 playbill, but we figure to be skipping a couple of them.  Here’s what we like best on the 2011 menu, which also includes the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar and and the classic musical Camelot.  In order of interest, more or less:

Moliere

Molière’s The Misanthrope (at the Festival Theater)

We’ve been interested in French drama since our college course in French literature, but unfortunately we’ve never seen much of it.  So Molière’s The Misanthrope is a top priority for us as we order tickets this week, especially with Brian Bedford directing and acting.  Update: Bedford won’t be directing the play after all, because his The Importance of Being Earnest, which originated at Stratford in 2009, is still running on Broadway, but he will still be acting in The Misanthrope.  David Grindley is now announced as the director.

By reputation Bedford is the world’s foremost English-speaking interpreter of Molière, but we’ve seen him only in other roles till now.  He’ll be 76 years old during the 2011 season; his character in The Misanthrope (Oronte) is at least half his age.  But we saw Bedford pull off the same sort of thing a few years ago when he played the lead in Private Lives.  Ben Carlson, who was brilliant as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale in 2010, will play Alceste.  Kelli Fox, another favorite of ours, is shuttling back to Stratford from the Shaw Festival to fill a supporting role.  This 1666 play is a satire of French high society.

Update 2 (7-8-11): We just saw that Mr. Bedford won’t be appearing in The Misanthrope either because of a medical issue. That’s disappointing. The estimable Peter Hutt will take his place. We’ve enjoyed Hutt’s work over the years at both the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival.

Hey!  When is the Stratford Festival going to offer a play by Victor Hugo?  We’d jump at the chance to see Ruy Blas or Hernani.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (at the Avon Theater)

We heard a fair amount of casual grousing in Stratford last summer about how the Festival was going to the dogs with shows like Evita – not simply musicals (bad enough!) but rock operas!  Personally, we don’t have a problem with rock musicals per se, though a lot of them, including Evita, don’t amount to much.  They’ll run out of worthy rock musicals a lot quicker than they’ll run out of classic American musicals.

the classic album cover

Jesus Christ Superstar is another story.  We’ve loved this rock musical account of the last days of Jesus’ life (told from the perspective of Judas, our Lord’s betrayer) since our high school years, when the two-disc LP first came out and the buzz started.  We listened to it incessantly and played and sang the tunes over and over – “I Don’t Know How to Love Him, “Everything’s Alright,” “Superstar,” and the Tchaikovsky-esque “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”  This music hasn’t gotten stale over the last 40 years. 

But this will be our first chance to hear it/see it live.  Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy, the stars of 2009’s remarkable West Side Story in Stratford, will sing the parts of Jesus and Mary Magdalene; Josh Young, whom we don’t know, will channel Judas.  Des McAnuff will be directing.  We expect good things.

Richard III (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theater)

In this Richard III, the lead role will be played by Seana McKenna. As a general rule, we’re not keen on “non-traditional” casting, but we fully expect Richard III to be the best Shakespeare in Stratford next summer. It’s the loosely historical story of how the hunchback Richard, Duke of Gloucester, schemes and murders his way onto the throne of England.  We learned recently that there are still people in Great Britain who insist vehemently that this play is a gross libel on Richard and that he wasn’t the monster of Shakespeare’s play.

Ms. McKenna is at the peak of her powers; we loved her last summer in The Winter’s Tale.  As for Richard’s being played by a woman — well, Richard is not a very manly man; he seems interested in women mainly to humiliate them and to blight their lives. An sexually ambiguous Richard may be just the ticket.  The rest of the cast is strong: Martha Henry, Peter Donaldson, Martha Henry, Sean Arbuckle, and Yanna McIntosh.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theater)

This is a Shakespeare play we hadn’t even read until a year or so ago, figuring that it was only a minor work.  Maybe it is, but after seeing The Gentlemen of Verona transformed into a first-class piece of entertainment last summer, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one we’ll see. 

The cast will have several of the Stratford Festival’s best, including Tom Rooney, Tom McCamus, Janet Wright, and Lucy Peacock.  Geraint Wyn Davies will play Falstaff, the fat, lecherous knight who is trying to get into the sack with two married women at once, but who is blockheaded enough to send the same love letter to both. 

Camelot (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at the Festival Theatre)

The musical Camelot is based on one of our all-time favorite novels, T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, a whimsical retelling of the legends of Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, and the rest of the gang at Camelot.  We’ve never thought Camelot had an especially memorable score, compared to shows like South Pacific or My Fair Lady, but three hours in Camelot can be special.  Geraint Wyn Davies will play the cuckolded king, Brent Carver the magician Merlin. 

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (at the Avon Theatre)

Emsworth has a long-standing prejudice against theatrical and cinematic adaptations of classic novels.  As readers, we form our own mental pictures of the scenes and characters of a novel.  Why let a play or a movie forever displace those images with someone else’s? 

Nevertheless, Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation of Steinbeck’s 1939 novel won a Tony, the wife of our bosom loves Steinbeck’s book, and one of our favorite actors, Evan Buliung, will play Tom Joad.  (We have just remembered that the wife went happily to see the last Steinbeck adaptation at Stratford (Of Mice and Men) while we saw something else.)  It’s the story of the Joad family and their struggles to make it during the Great Depression. 

Titus Andronicus (by William Shakespeare, at the Tom Patterson Theatre)

We’ve read Titus Andronicus, and we’re just not inspired to see this convoluted story about the succession to the Roman throne, a mind-numbing tale of mayhem, rape, cannibalism, and murder.  We’re curious as to how they’ll accomplish the special effects – there’s some really nasty stuff to be staged.  But Titus Andronicus simply doesn’t strike us as a very good play.  The experts say good parts of it were written by someone other than the Bard. 

Not all Shakespeare plays are equally worthy.  If we see this show, the main reason will be that we’d like eventually to brag that we’ve seen the entire Shakespeare canon.  John Vickery will play the title role. 

The Homecoming (by Harold Pinter, at the Avon Theater)

You’d almost have to say that nastiness will be a running theme at Stratford in 2011. Titus Andronicus is all blood and carnage, Richard III is a story of sociopathic, bloody cruelty, Jesus Christ Superstar ends with a brutal whipping and a crucifixion, and Harold Pinter’s 1964 Tony-award-winning play may be the most disquieting of all.  The Homecoming is even more trying to the nerves than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which came out around the same time. It’s about what happens in a lower-class North London family when the oldest son, Teddy, brings his slutty wife Ruth home to meet his father and brothers. 

The play is violent from its realistic beginning to its surreal end, mostly verbal violence.  These people use words to hurt.  We happened to see the 2008 revival in New York City and thought it was an extraordinary play, but still don’t feel braced enough to see it again. (Another Pinter play, we’d probably spring for.)  The Homecoming is not for the squeamish, any more than Titus Andronicus.  The Stratford’s cast includes Stephen Ouimette, Brian Dennehy, and Cara Ricketts.

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (at the Festival Theater)

Twelfth Night is one of our very favorite Shakespeare plays (in this post we made a list), and it would be our top priority for 2011 if it weren’t being directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director Des McAnuff.  As we announced after seeing the McAnuff-directed As You Like It in September (see this post), we’re going to pass on Shakespeare plays directed by McAnuff for the foreseeable future.  No one can say we didn’t give them a fair trial: we also suffered through his Romeo and Juliet in 2008 and squirmed through his Macbeth in 2009.  Directing Shakespeare is simply not where McAnuff’s considerable talents lie.

They’ve done this play in Stratford a lot.  Since 1953 only A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been played there as often as Twelfth Night; this will be the eleventh production since 1953.  On average it comes up every five years, so if we miss this one . . . . It’s a shame, though, especially considering the talent in the 2011 cast, which includes Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney, Ben Carlson, and Brian Dennehy. 

The rest: Shakespeare’s Will (by Vern Thiessen, in the Studio Theatre); Hosanna (by Michael Tremblay, in the Studio Theatre); The Little Years (by John Mighton, also in the Studio Theatre)

The talented Seana McKenna will also be playing Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Will, a one-woman play about how William Shakespeare’s wife felt about being left his second-best bed in his last will and testament, together with other reflections on what it was like to be the great poet’s wife.  Unfortunately, we’re hung up on the premise.  We doubt that Anne Hathaway’s husband actually wrote the plays and sonnets that have come down to us under his name (see this post).

But we’re intrigued by Hosanna, the play with which long-time Stratford Festival artistic director Richard Monette made his mark as an actor, and just might manage to see it.  There will be a cast of two: Hosanna, a transvestite, will be played by Gareth Potter, and Hosanna’s partner Cuirette will be played by Oliver Becker. 

The small, almost claustrophobic Studio Theatre will host a third play in 2011.  The Little Years was written by John Mighton, a Canadian playwright who also has a Ph. D. in mathematics.  The play, set in the 1950s, is about a teenage girl who’s interested in physics.

We observed a year ago that the 2010 playbill consisted of mostly contemporary works, other than the Shakespeare plays and Peter Pan.  This will be true in 2011 too: except for the Shakespeare plays and Molière’s The Misanthrope, every show on the schedule was written after 1960.

Richard III at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass.

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III

In a spirit of branching out, Emsworth and the Cordelia of his three daughters devoted a day to driving east to Lenox, Massachusetts to see a summer repertory company called Shakespeare and Company put on The Life and Death of King Richard III. This was a new theater destination for us; on the strength of this show, we feel strongly that these folks ought to be encouraged.

We saw Richard III in a relatively small, low-tech space (in the “Founders’ Theatre”) constructed mostly out of risers and black drapes, and sat in what might have been old church pews. But the acting, we thought, was top-notch — as good, in general, as we’ve come to expect in Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford.

The Founders' Theatre, with the "Rose Footprint" theater (the tent) to the right, down a hill

Richard III is the story of misanthrope Richard, Duke of Gloucester (John Douglas Thompson), who hates the world because his brother Edward, not he, is King of England, and because his physical deformities leave him unappealing to women. In two early monologues (including the play’s famous opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent . . . “), Richard boasts about his schemes to have his brother George, Duke of Clarence, put to death, and to marry a woman whose husband and father he has killed.

John Douglas Thompson, as Richard III, shamelessly urges Leia Espericueta, as Lady Anne, Warwick's youngest daughter, to marry him

Before it’s over, and as Richard murders and manipulates his way onto the throne of England, he tallies more victims than Jason in Friday the 13th. But the shock value in this show came, not so much from the death toll, but from the sheer inventiveness of Richard’s perversity. The nervous laughter from the audience when Richard cheerfully told us

I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.
What though I kill’d her husband and her father?

was just the beginning. Jaws dropped when Richard gave orders to have his brother Clarence and then his two nephews murdered. There were gasps at Richard’s cynical pretext for sending Hastings to the chopping block, and more when he kicked Hastings’s head (in a sack) around the stage.

Elizabeth Ingram as the ghostly Margaret and Nigel Gore as the Duke of Buckingham

In fact, two of the most shocking moments in the play (as we feel sure the playwright intended) didn’t even involve bloodshed and murder. We held our breath when (in Act IV, scene 2) the newly crowned Richard coolly snubbed Buckingham, his most faithful ally (Nigel Gore), when Buckingham reminded him that he’d been promised the earldom of Hereford. (“I am not in the giving vein to-day.”) And when Richard concluded his audacious request that Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) persuade her young daughter to become his next wife (Act IV, scene 4) by giving Elizabeth a sensual kiss, we felt it as a blow.

From reading the play – till now we hadn’t seen Richard III on stage – we didn’t expect much humor, if any, in the show. But director Jonathan Croy made a highly effective comic episode (Act I, scene 4) out of the efforts of Richard’s bungling hired assassins to screw up their courage to murder Clarence. He did the same with an exhilarating Baynard’s Castle scene (Act III, scene 7) in which Josh Aaron McCabe, as Catesby, an exuberant Johnny Lee Davenport, as the Lord Mayor, and Nigel Gore, as Buckingham, brilliantly manipulated a mob (and the audience in the theater, appalled but laughing) into acclaiming Richard as their new king. The scene seemed to us the reverse image of Antony’s celebrated speech to the Romans in Julius Caesar. It was great theater.

This Richard III came dangerously close to camp – but that’s what pulled the parts of this play together, we thought. Three weeks earlier, in Stratford, Ontario (see this post), we had seen another early Shakespeare play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, presented (and very effectively) more as scenes from a variety show — an entertainment — than as a narrative play. In the same way, this production of Richard III, was more a pageant of scenes from Richard’s outrageous career – melodramatic confrontations, comic episodes, a lament, non-naturalistic speeches to the audience, a battle scene — than a unified narrative.  (Is there any other Shakespeare play in which so many characters go out of their way to give their names as part of their first speeches?)  We felt that the approach brought us close to what a London audience in 1590 might have experienced.

Leia Espericueta, Zoë Laiz, and Tod Randolph as Lady Anne, Young Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth

We’ve read that the roles of the women in Richard III are not truly playable. That wasn’t the case here; the dazzling repartee between Richard and Anne (Leia Espericueta) in Act I, scene 2, the blistering curses of Margaret (Elizabeth Ingram) in Act I, scene 3, and the verbal fireworks between Richard and Elizabeth (Tod Randolph) in Act IV, scene 4 were all highlights.

All told, this was a lively, tightly directed show with a strong cast. Rocco Sisto, as Clarence, gave a mesmerizing rendition of Clarence’s celebrated dream about his drowning and adventures in Hades. On the printed page the various dukes and nobleman seem undifferentiated, but in this show they all had strongly individual personalities; we especially enjoyed Nigel Gore as Buckingham. The choice of John Douglas Thompson as Richard III was a case of non-traditional casting, not because Mr. Thompson is a black man, a matter of no consequence, but because, with his tall figure, agility, and imposing physical presence, he did not look at all like the deformed, undersized cripple that the playwright made Richard out to be. It was a small point to sacrifice, as Mr. Thompson was an extraordinarily convincing Richard.

Shakespeare and Company operates on the campus of the Lenox School, a private prep school situated out in the country in the Berkshires

Shakespeare and Company seems to have been around for 33 years — some friends who used to live in Stockbridge told us they saw Shakespeare from this group in an outdoor theater in the late 1970s — but the group is still a long ways from reaching the critical mass of established repertory companies like the Shaw Festival, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, or the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It sells only about 50,000 tickets each year, compared to about 500,000 at Stratford. Shows like The Winter’s Tale, which was also on the bill this year, have 25 performances compared to the 100 or more that the Shaw Festival might have for a play like Major Barbara.

Shakespeare and Company also seems to have ambitions that aren’t close to fruition. One of its three “theaters,” the “Rose Footprint Theatre,” is just a tent in a field that’s apparently used for shows for kids. The season publication says it’s the spot where they intend (when they get the money) to build an historically accurate reproduction of the Rose Playhouse, the London theater where Richard III may have been first performed.

We must complain about the the program for this show, in which the cast of characters confusingly had the actors on the left and the characters on the right. Needless to say, this makes it hard to sneak a glance, in the middle of the performance, to see who’s playing what.