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THEATER REVIEW: Richard III

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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.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: Richard III"

Ed says:

Donald

When you say, “tantrums of a little boy,” you hit the nail on the head. I found the leading actor’s performance almost laughable because he had so little menace and so much of that spoiled child quality. Because I never heard or felt his power, his psychotic magnetism, I found it ridiculous when others went along with his plans or he murdered people. I have never seen the actor before, but it was, like you alluded to, like a sit com character trying to be big and bad. I just couldnt buy him or Buckingham (sooooo one note) or most of the other performers. The production was too long as you say and the best confrontation scenes lost their punch because the actors couldnt sustain their breath and keep the storms blowing. I found this production pretty disappointing.

blake says:

Yay for Jaguar Bennet’s powerful portrayal of Richard the third! It’s awefully convincing–
so much so, that I think whenever people see him on the street from now on, they’ll cross to the other side out of fear. —oh wait, they’ve always done that.

har har! Congrats to the whole cast of this fine work!

Dalian Tross says:

Regarding the strength and clarity of Gabriela Lawson’s delivery, I am in accord. Her’s were the only lines in which the Bard’s blank verse shone. There’s reading lines, and there’s Ms. Lawson’s acting. I thank her.

Dylan says:

I have seen the actual show lights, and I can guarantee that they are much better than the lights anyone saw this second weekend. Lisi’s name should not be tied to a dead generator, especially when other people were calling the shots when the lights went out.

As for the light on the audience, that was a one-time ordeal. The lights shift every which-way when they are brought down and put back up, not to also mention attached to an emergency power source. There is naturally some spill off the stage while using those instruments, since they cannot be shuttered.

That’s live theatre though. Mistakes happen, things shift, and lighting designers go unappreciated when the power goes out.

I am sure that for the rest of the run the lights will be as they were designed to be. As long as no one speaks of The Scottish Play. :-P

Stephen says:

I haven’t seen the show yet, but Dylan? “The lights shift every which way when they are brought down and put back up?”

Ladder. Re-focus. No excuses.

Cannot be shuttered? Ain’t a light alive that can’t be shuttered, and if they’re using lights that ‘can’t be shuttered,’ they should use other instruments that can be. This isn’t some fly-by-night production company here…this is a well-funded (by Fresno standards), board member operated summer festival.

Letting a generator run out of gas or not checking the batter pre-show? NO excuse. Where’s the Stage Manager’s checklist? Checking the gennie should be on there.

Sorry, but this isn’t Children’s Musical Theatre. This is WSF, and despite the non-existent cost of tickets, expect a newspaper reviewer to call out those inexcusable mistakes in his review.

“That’s live theatre, though.” Um, not really. Shouldn’t happen. Rain, sleet, clouds, MMA fights, THAT can’t be helped. The examples you sighted? Should have been helped.

I do agree, tho…once Lisi finished her design, none of these issues are her fault, and I hope she’s plenty peeved if her design isn’t being properly reflected each and every performance.

C’mon WSF–you fixed the sound issues, now fix the lights.

Jaguar Bennett says:

“Without visible hump or deformity” is one of the nicest things anyone has ever said about my physical appearance. Thanks, Donald!

melanie says:

Great review- I agree with almost everything you said, except for a few things. First, I felt the sound was horrible for the show- in a handful of scenes I wasn’t even paying attention to the actors because I was so distracted by the mikes going in and out of tune. Also,it seems that the mike on Jaguar picked up some odd breathing/moaning sound he made when he wasn’t talking, which was disconcerting. And while I liked that Parrish did cast women in some of the men’s roles (especially in the case of Buckingham, yay Gabriela Lawson) I felt that Richard’s seduction of the female murderers was too much-especially with Tyrrel. Richard is ugly and vile-why would these women be attracted to him. The scenes between Tyrrel and Richard were odd, and I think it would have been better if a male was cast in that part.

Ginger Latimer says:

I took a dozen high school theatre students last night, and by intermission they were filled with questions. BY the show’s end they were provoked, and had strong opinions. It made for great discussion all the way back to Madera late at night. Thank you WSF for giving our community a glimpse at something more….
Generally, this was a solid production. I struggled a bit with women as murderers, and wished for more period hairstyles to enhance the characters of Margaret and Priest.
Some of the yelling could have been more effective had it not been so frequent…. and lastly, the set can be so much more. WSF has come a long way over the past five years, but still builds plywood sets without depth or character.
A side note: Daniel Moore is a solid addition to WSF, and will open doors for children across the valley to the wonders of Shakespeare. I Hope classroom teachers take advantage of this opportunity.

Anonymous says:

This show was, simply put, boring. Jaguar Bennett took a good, honest stab at a very difficult character, and was engaging, but for the rest of the production, I sat squirming in my seat waiting for it to end. The range of talent was inconsistent to the point of being distracting and the choice to cast so many females in male roles seemed either patronizing or suggested that there just aren’t enough male actors to fill the roles. Whatever the reason for the choice, it was a poor one that did nothing to help tell the story. Gabriella Lawson, while perhaps having a good command of the language, was affected and rigid and did a first rate job of “acting.” Her physicality and expressions were reminiscent of an audioanimatronic figure. I couldn’t figure out if it was her choice or the director’s choice to always have her body facing away from the action, head turned over her shoulder to look at what what going on, but it was so contrived and artificial, it distracted from the scenes. The rest of the females-playing-males were so busy being females-playing-males that they didn’t care what their superobjective within the story was. Their primary goal was to be in a gender-bending role rather than to see their story through. Suzanne Grazyna was more interested in strutting across the stage trying to look sexy and seductive in her moment than just playing the role honestly. Richard III is a heavy, tedious script and needs more creativity, imagination and consistent talent from both director and actors to make it something a person should want to sit through.

Stephen says:

I still haven’t seen it, but I want to give props to all the commenting and reviews here. Very thoughtful and engaging reviews, without being trite or offensive.

I especially like ‘Anonymous’ well-written review.

blake says:

Of all the comments about other comments,
I’d have to say that this last one by Stephen is the best. The language is clear and concise, the typing shows mastery of the keyboard, and the font is clear and bold.

yo says:

the previous three comments utilize ascii in the most cunning of manners.

Paul says:

I must agree with Anonymous. My partner fell asleep during the first act and didn’t rouse until intermission. I appreciate WSF trying such a difficult play, but they obviously don’t have the actors or director or je ne sais quoi to pull it off. The gender bending was interesting for about five minutes and after that I just wished they were better actors or the director had helped them with more creative movement, or choices or something. While I did not find Gabriela Lawson to be an “autoanimatronic figure, I am getting tired of her playing every role the same. As Dorothy Parker once said of Katherine Hepburn, She exhibited the emotional range from A to B. It is a hard play and needs more juice than I saw here. I fear my partner will not go the theatre with me for a while. I wish WSF was better, or at least getting better, but I don’t see it. Why can’t Fresno have a professional company?