note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
Shakespeare's "Richard III" is renowned for its portrayal of the brilliant, twisted Duke of Gloucester (James Barton in the current Vokes production), who carves a bloody path through friends and relatives to seize the English crown.
The master dramatist opens with a bang. Richard's first speech (beginning with the famous lines "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this sun of York") reveals his jealousy of his brother Edward, lately crowned King of England (Mike Lague).
Crippled since birth and corroded by bitterness, Richard is "determined to prove a villain" and triumph over others in his own way. His style of trickery is immediately front and center as he empathizes with the trusting Duke of Clarence (Chris Cardoni), who is being taken to the Tower of London. Although Richard himself has orchestrated this brother's arrest, he blames the queen and promises to intercede with the king. No sooner has he seen Clarence off to the Tower to be murdered, but he is wooing the widow of Henry VI, whom he has killed. Enjoying every minute of dissembling, he manages to turn the fury of Lady Anne (Michelle Mount) into infatuation. All this happens in the first few scenes.
At Vokes, director John Barrett has chosen a different tack, opening with scenes from Shakespeare's "King Henry VI," the history play that precedes "Richard III." Although the approach should help provide background, it lacks the impact of Shakespeare's opening and his clarity about who Richard is and what is on his mind. There are so many characters in the Vokes opening that it takes playgoers a while to figure out who anyone is.
Once the production gets to the traditional opening soliloquy, the story of the outsider who succeeds and fails monumentally moves along inexorably to his death at the hands of the Earl of Richmond (M. Zach Buolo). As Richmond becomes Henry VII and brings the warring families of Lancaster and York together, we see the playwright tipping his hat to Henry's granddaughter, Shakespeare's own his monarch, Elizabeth I.
"Richard III" is an ambitious undertaking for a community theater. Finding large numbers of actors who are good at delivering Shakespearian lines-- hard enough for professionals--is nearly impossible. The Vokes Players keep the story moving forward, delivering their lines clearly, with several performers standing out.
Melissa Sine is in top form as Lady Grey, a widow from Shakespeare's "Henry VI" who marries King Edward IV. As the Duke of Buckingham, Dan Kelly, who was impressive in Moliere's "The Learned Ladies" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in recent years at Vokes, connives with Richard to make him king and lives to regret it. Wayland resident Grant Wood is a strong, self-possessed Hastings. Newcomer Justin Budinoff is excellent in bit parts, especially as Prince Edward, murdered early on. (One theatergoer remarked at intermission, "It's quite violent, isn't it? To which the only possible reply is: "You ain't seen nothing yet.")
James Barton handles the demanding role of Richard confidently. He makes Richard's delight in his deviousness palpable, as when the schemer realizes he has won Anne over "in her heart's extremist hate,/ With curses in her mouth." Amazed at his success, he brags he will have to buy a looking glass to admire his looks.
Richard's evil deeds come back to haunt him, though, as he prepares to fight Richmond's army on Bosworth Field. Behind lighted panels on the Barrett- designed set, the ghosts of the betrayed come to curse Richard and torment his sleep. Waking in a cold sweat, Barton gives a riveting delivery of Richard's final speech. Not to trivialize either Barton or Shakespeare, one is reminded one of Tolkien's Gollum arguing ferociously with himself. "Is there a murder here?" cries an overwrought and suddenly self-doubting Richard. "No. Yes, I am. ... I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not." A person can do evil only so long. Sooner or later, not only do people wise up, but the evil-doer's own feelings revolt.
Shaken, Richard goes to battle with a new awareness. It may not be in human nature to cut a bloody swath through the world indefinitely. In the end, Richard is only human.
Vokes is as professional as ever in its production elements. The red and yellow stage set, with its stairs and arches, the costumes by Elizabeth Tustian, the lighting by Daniel Clawson, and the fight choreography by Chris Cardoni are all effective. The sound is uneven. The battle sounds in the opening turn off when people are speaking and go back afterward in a slightly unnatural way, but the ominous musical bridges hit just the right notes. Robert Zawistowski, who also performed two roles, designed the sound.
"Richard III" runs through March 17. For further information, go to http://www.vokesplayers.org or call (508) 358-4034.