note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey
Here's the good news. The Publick Theatre's "Richard III" can easily stand comparison to the best professional Shakespeare productions in town. I can't imagine the A.R.T. mounting a more thoughtful or a more compelling production --- and they'd probably set it at the Watergate Hotel.
Director Spiro Veloudos begins the play with a bloody battle instead of with Richard's powerful soliloquy "Now is the winter of our discontent..." By pumping up the action (and the fighting is plenty exciting) Veloudos gives notice that this will be a bloody evening. Even Brent Wachter's stunning abstract paining of a set sports a bleeding band of crimson across its midsection.
Phillip Patrone is a Richard who thrives on deceit. When he isn't stabbing someone in the back, he's getting someone else to do it for him. Where Ian McKellan's Richard in the most recent film version is a maniac, Patrone's villain is a self-contained dynamo. How Patrrone manages to make himself appear smaller is a mystery to me, but his Richard put me immediately in mind of a post-historical diagnosis of him as having pituitary dwarfism, according to the British medical journal Lancet. This Richard may be small but he's extremely dangerous.
Veloudos' production is a swift three hours with several clever surprises, like the silly shtick --- lord knows you need a few laughs in this mordant drama! --- which precedes Clarence's murder (It reminded me of Lawrence Kasdan's fabulous monkey business with the assassins in "I Love You To Death"), and the two interspersed scenes of murder and reconciliation. The text Veloudos uses is a composite of Richard texts, including the peculiar Cibber addition of the line "Off with his head." Happily, neither the mad Margaret scenes nor the ghosts have been cut, as they are in many productions. I say happily because Beth Gotha is a riveting Margaret, and her scene with the two other widows is wonderfully affecting. Sheila Stasak is a formidable Queen Elizabeth whose "Where are my children" (when Richard has just ordered their deaths) is unforgettable.
David Michael Fox gives an astonishingly chilling performance as the evil Duke of Buckingham. (After Richard, he has the most lines in the play.) Fox has presence and superb Shakespearean delivery. Bill Mootos is a marvellously calculating Catesby, and fine performances as well come from Bob Jolly in two roles, from Job Emerson, Clifford Allen, Duncan McCulloch, Diego Arciniegas, and from Douglas O. Lyons as Richmond, Richard's worthy nemesis.
Jana Durland Howlands's period costumes are so sumptuous, so carefully wrought, even the chain-mail looks authentic. Yael Lubetzky's lighting is as inventive as the set with that red streak seeming to get redder as the bodies fall. B of all, the Publick's "King Richard III" is perfectly understandable and completely clear ... and how many Shakespeare productions can you say that about!