Saturday, July 1, 2017

First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory: 'Richard III' pokes sticks into the hornet's nest of royal succession

So much energy is concentrated in the character of the Duke of Gloucester, scheming to become King Richard III, that the
Matt Anderson in a rare moment of calm in the title role of "Richard III"
young Shakespeare was hard put to render full-bodied everyone else in the hunchback's orbit, and not just like iron filings around a magnet.

It's a credit to a new production by First Folio Productions and Catalyst Repertory that the other roles are vividly filled. They may rant at and lament his cold bravado and be appalled by his ruthlessness.  They flail against Richard's ferocious will just to survive. Still, they amount to something in their usually vain struggles. There is something more to them under Glenn Dobbs' direction to make Matt Anderson's excellent portrayal of the title character more than a star turn.

But any "Richard III" that really works has to start and end with how the main role is executed.  On that score, the new production holds the attention, which is immediately arrested by the frame Dobbs and his team have put around it. That's the discovery in 2012 of Richard III's body under a parking lot in Leicester, England.

King Edward IV (Matthew Socey) is the monarch Gloucester famously resents.
The audience comes into the IndyFringe Theatre space to see two actors in modern dress talking with each other. An excavation site behind them is surrounded on three sides by a barrier. There is a table and a microscope on it. We are soon aware, when a TV interviewer and cameraman enter the scene to talk with the project director that an attempt to get a contemporary feature for the evening news is under way. It's wrapped up amid construction noise, and the crew departs.

Then Anderson as the splenetic Gloucester skulks onto the scene, uttering the first of the play's two most famous lines: "Now is the winter of our discontent," going on to decry "this weak piping time of peace" under the sickly, pleasure-loving King Edward IV, his brother. On opening night Friday, the lip-smacking sourness of this speech, one of several times Gloucester alone fills us in on his stratagems and resentments, was in full bloom. I wouldn't have suspected it was possible to say so disdainfully the word "lute," which ends the speaker's complaint that the king "capers nimbly in a lady's chamber / to the lascivious pleasing of a lute." Those "l's" fairly drip from Anderson's tongue, and the "t" in "lute" stings.

The actor turns Gloucester's crooked stature, admirably sustained throughout, into a figure of towering malevolence. Everyone is diminished and undone by it: The men to their deaths, the women mostly to humiliation and shame. Allison Clark Reddick played King Edward's queen, Elizabeth, to the edge of the madness she's entitled to by what she has to put up with. Lady Anne's forced marriage to the very cause of her intimate griefs — expressed in a blend of fury and despair — was well represented by Christina Howard.

Nan Macy is fascinating as the Duchess of York, mother of the three brothers central to England's 15th-century dynastic difficulties, and worn to a frazzle by them. Casey Ross as Queen Margaret, widow of the late King Henry VI (linking "Richard III" to the other history plays) was not burdened with the full wordiness of the part, thanks to judicious cutting, and thus could get to the essence.

The king's sons while away the time, unaware of their fate.
It's a less tidy task to run down the list of male cast members, but they all communicated their roles' functions well. Particularly poignant was the performance of Jay Hemphill as the Duke of Buckingham, sporting an uneasy laugh and a gift for rhetorically feathering his own nest — which ultimately gets him nowhere. Also solid — and getting to put one foot each in the victim and victor camps — was Carey Shea as the Duke of Clarence, dispatched early upon superstition and innuendo in a manner worthy of today's Alex Jones, and as the leader of anti-Gloucester forces, the Earl of Richmond, soon to be founder of the Tudor monarchy that would patronize the grateful playwright. Matthew Socey roared and wilted as needed in the role of King Edward, and Lex Lumpkin and Dalyn Stewart were effective in the juvenile roles of the short-lived princes in the Tower.

The costumes of Linda Schornhorst carry thorough suggestions of the play's era and are marked by individuality and detail. Brian G. Hartz's sound design varies appropriately between Renaissance and contemporary rock, and he sets the 2012 scene well with traffic noises before a line of Shakespeare is spoken.

I'll conclude with an alternative view of Anderson's extraordinary fitness for the title role. His establishment of an ambitious aristocrat chafing at his physical condition and the perceived slights that have dogged him from birth is immediate and forceful. His expressive articulation never lets up. The grimaces, smirks, and scowls, the gimlet-eyed penetration of his regard (his sustained stare-down of Buckingham could make the blood run cold), the actually sweaty relentlessness of his evil mission — all these elements are properly there. And they remain forceful to the very end.

But I see Richard in Act 5 as more chillingly self-possessed, quite on top of his corrosive bitterness, enjoying battlefield command, absurdly overconfident, though he's practically friendless. To me, his desperation and gnawing anxiety should appear to be mastered, except for a few wild moments, such as the play's other famous line — "A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!" His lines here are stuffed with tactical commands. He should seem almost pleased to have put all the machinations at court behind him and to play the soldier, the dogged combatant with all possible outcomes lying before him on Bosworth Field.

True, he's had a horrible dream in which ghosts reminding him of his murderous misdeeds trouble his sleep. There follows a soliloquy of self-questioning that's a little absurd on the page, but was well played here as being a kind of groggy recognition of who he has been all along. Otherwise, the quality is far away from Hamlet's "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I," for instance.

But the young playwright's triumph as a rhetorician is already fully mature in this role. In support of my sense that Richard III needs a touch of eerie calm in the last act, I offer what he says just before he speaks to his army:

Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis'd at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law!
March on, join bravely, let us to it pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

Might makes right, in other words; sneaky tricks, subterfuges, and betrayals aren't enough. And here Richard sums up why enacting all his hurts on the battlefield is his final satisfaction, whatever the outcome.

Still, the integrity and consistency of the decisions Dobbs has made in bringing this powerful adaptation to the stage make the production well worth seeing.

[Photos by Gary Nelson]


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