note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
Special to Theater Mirror
A new group comprising some of the best Shakespearean actors in the Greater Boston area decided its first season would feature three plays about politics. So last week the Actors' Shakespeare Project opened with "Richard III" at the Old South Meeting House, a place that still vibrates with the history of 18th Century politics and the Sons of Liberty. To help present the characters as people like ourselves, the actors often mingled with the audience -- for example, during the cocktail party that preceded the action. The unobtrusively modern costumes suggested Shakespeare's contemporaneity, too.
But any playgoers who came hoping to find George Bush in the manipulative Duke of Gloucester -- and some did -- would have been better off just giving in to the beautiful language and the acting. That's because whatever one may say about George Bush, he is not Richard III. He doesn't deliberately murder children, and his religious crusade is based on sincerity, whereas Richard III makes cynical use of feigned piety. The president's behind-the-scenes campaign guru, Karl Rove, may have more of the ruthless tendencies of a Richard, but straining to see such connections ends up trivializing Shakespeare
. For many, seeing John Kuntz (best known for comedy) as Richard was greatly satisfying. Even when he was at his most villainous, there was sometimes laughter in the audience expressive of delight in the actor's zestful wickedness.
There were many other performances worthy of comment as well. Allyn Burrows played Richard's ill-fated brother Clarence as a trusting Robert Redford, but he took on a completely different persona to play the slick and scheming Catesby. Ken Cheeseman as an erstwhile ally of Richard's thoughtfully registers increasing scruples. Jennie Israel is moving as the imperious, confident Queen brought low by a stream of disasters. Paula Langton was effective in three roles, especially as Lady Rivers. Her comic turn as one of the murderers of Clarence was great fun, but to some playgoers the broad comedy at such a juncture struck a jarring note. Marya Lowry as Buckingham, Richard's principal apologist (until she tries to get paid for her service and is told "I am not in the giving vein today"), is a powerful presence. Sarah Newhouse plays the hapless Lady Anne, who curses whoever will be Richard's wife -- only to become that sorry soul herself. Paula Plum is marvelous as mad Queen Margaret with her witchlike predictions. One will not soon forget her wildly arched eyebrows, her velvet cocktail gown and how she fiercely scratches off in a monstrous tattered book her list of successful curses, enraged that the biggest curse (against Richard) has yet to be fulfilled. Newcomer Maureen Regan said little but subtly expressed through her body language the timidity of young Elizabeth and her horror at Richard's opportunistic marriage proposals. Director Benjamin Evett delivered a memorable Earl of Richmond, who fights Richard hand to hand and brings his downfall. This Richmond is the embodiment of decency, honest strength and hope for the future.
It is impossible to watch the Duke of Gloucester pull the wool over the eyes of people who should know better without wondering if one would be able to see through such a character today. One thinks one could, of course. But Shakespeare is rarely wrong about human nature. The genius of Richard, brooding outsider and wallflower, is to observe, identifying the weak spots in others and playing to those weaknesses. Richard knows just how to use the widowed Lady Anne's need for love and Buckingham's greed to gain his ends.
But Shakespeare doesn't let Richard off scot-free. Beyond his physical defeat is the defeat that conscience orchestrates in dreams. The king may protest all he likes that "conscience is but a word that cowards use." The people he has killed have the last word, stirring Richard's sleeping conscience before the final battle. "There's no creature loves me, and if I die, no soul will pity me," he declares. His bravado is weak against such a deep failure.
Troy Siebels oversaw set decoration for the production, Bill Barclay composed and performed the music, Michael Harris arranged the lighting, and Leea Regan was costume coordinator. For tickets, contact TheaterMania at 1-866-811-4111 or www.theatermania.com. . For other information, see the Actors' Shakespeare Project Web site, http://actorsshakespeareproject.org/. And bring a cushion for your pew.