There’s a powerful and vibrant moment in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Richard III” that captures for me the heart and soul of this intense classic. The royal court, which on the whole is as bloodthirsty, fratricidal and downright nasty a lot as you’ve ever seen assembled under one roof, has just learned that King Edward IV’s brother, George, has perished in the Tower. The king, furious, turns around to glare at the dozen or so people scattered in the room, and everyone immediately falls to their knees. It’s as if Edward’s eyes have a physical grip all their own as his downward nod drives these important grown-ups into positions of subservience.
I thought to myself while watching the scene: This is the power that Richard, who is literature’s poster child for terror and despotism, craves more than anything. He wants to be the arbiter of life and death. He wants to make other human beings do things because he can. Imagine that: being able to make people fall to their knees simply because of an angry downward glance. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare was fascinated with power — not only with those who grab it and keep it, but with all the other complicit souls who embrace tyranny out of fear, cluelessness or self-interest.
One thing I like about this production, which is in its second weekend at Woodward Park, is that director Heather Parish has found new ways to tackle this always-important theme in the play.
I’m drawn to several of Parish’s directing choices. I don’t agree with all of them, but I admire her overall vision. The overall production doesn’t provide as compelling a tragedy as last year’s “Hamlet,” say, but it does draw on the strengths of some of the company’s veteran actors. At the same time, the show’s biggest weakness is that it never felt as seething as “Richard III” should be. (You can add your own review to this post or read comments from the opening weekend.)
We’ll focus on two of Parish’s major directing choices. The first, and most obvious, is her casting of Jaguar Bennett in the title role. It was an interesting, and in some ways daring, choice. Bennett is not what you’d think of as your typical leading Shakespearean tragic actor. Over the years in the Fresno theater scene, he’s grown a lot in terms of technique and range, but he’s still more of what I consider to be a comic actor.
As the scheming Richard, who at the start of the play faces the daunting task of having to get rid of two brothers and two nephews in order to become king, Bennett has to overcome his natural tendency to project a sitcom punchiness. There’s a rhythm, a cadence, to his delivery that goes against the grain of heavy angst. When his character declares in the prologue, for example, “I intend to be a villain,” it made me think more of a cackle than an ominous warning.
Bennett plays Richard with an appropriate amount of seductive menace flecked with outright anger, but there are also times that he gets all stompy and almost goofy on us, as if we’re witnessing the tantrums of a powerless little boy instead of a very scary and dangerous man.
It didn’t make it any easier that Parish asks Bennett to perform his character without visible hump or deformity. I know that it might be considered cooler or more sophisticated to try to get at the root of Richard’s seriously twisted psyche purely through a psychological exploration, but I also believe that people are superficial — looks do matter — and it makes a lot of sense that the torment and humiliation that a deformed character would have gone through since childhood adds another palpable level to Richard’s motivation.
Still, there are many moments that Bennett does connect intimately and deeply with his character, and his soliloquy after his nightmare dream — when all the folks that the bloodthirsty king has dispatched come back for a sort of invitation-only Let’s Haunt the Guy Who Killed Us party — is among his finest work in the show. Overall, I found myself forgetting about Bennett’s natural comic tendencies as the play progressed, which I feel is a testament to his commitment to the role.
The second of Parish’s choices is her decision to fool around with gender expectations in the play. The way it turns out, women play most of the meanies in the play, including the assassins who do Richard’s dirty work. I really liked the concept, which opened up all kinds of interesting issues dealing with sexuality. (Richard practically paws each of the assassins. Is this a gay read of the character along the lines of Richard II? Or is it the reverse? Interesting.) Parish draws upon some of the strongest actors in the company, including Gabriela Lawson, who plays the scheming Lord Buckingham with a fascinating, haughty intensity tempered with the growing realization that throwing your hat in with the baddest guy in the room can have its drawbacks. (Speaking of hats, I was glad when her character ditched hers later in the play; her cute little brimmed headpiece was a little too Mary Poppins for me.) I also liked Suzanne Grazyna’s turn as the murderous Tyrrel.
There are times that the show does drag. (I’d have loved to seen the confrontation scene between Richard and Elizabeth truncated, or at least to have been more emotionally persuasive.) And while I absolutely love the staging and passion of Buckingham’s fierce speech to the masses (and even longed for more energy and volume from the actors who spread through the audience), I wish that the crispness and intensity of that moment could have been captured in other places as well.
A few other strong performances that stood out for me: a regal Erica Riggs as Queen Elizabeth, Jessica Reedy’s ominous Dowager Queen Margaret and Luis Ramentas’ all-too-human Lord Hastings. Jarred Clowes’ suitable murky set, swathed with rich fabrics and grave symbolist images of dead trees, provided a nice mood without being too dominant. Kat Clowes’ costumes worked well with Parish’s vaguely Elizabethan context. And the production’s sound design was first-rate, with virtually all the dialogue crisp and clear in the outdoor setting. (Well, we did lose part of the “My kingdom for a horse” speech, but those things happen.)
As for Lisi Drioane’s lighting design: All I can say is that the lights weren’t a strong part of the performance. In fact, the lights went completely out at the Thursday performance I saw, though that seemed to be an issue with the generator. My quibble is with the way the front half of the audience was bathed in a harsh glare for the entire two-and-a-half-hour running time. I’m hoping that one of the company’s next priorities is figuring out a way to increase the effectiveness of the lighting experience.