The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Verdi’s Otello has the title character played by a white singer making a mockery of the fact that the moor Otello is an outsider in Venice due to his race. The recent Jamie Lloyd Company production of Cyrano de Bergerac at the BAM Harvey had a title character with no overlarge nose which worked simply because James McAvoy gave such a titanic performance. And now The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park is offering a Richard III in which the title character is not a hunchback. So how do you explain why the other characters refer to him as “ugly” and “deformed”? Is this supposed to be the “motiveless malignancy” of Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello – although that play also has bigotry and race to contend with as a theme.
Director Robert O’Hara (best known for cutting-edge new plays including his own) has chosen Danai Gurira to play the murderous 15th century royal who kills off all those relatives who stand in his way to the British throne. Gurira, a playwright herself, best known for her role as General Okoye in Black Panther as well as Michonne in The Walking Dead, plays Richard, Duke of Gloucester as an action hero, but without any physical deformity to explain the character’s murderous rampage though he still says:
I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And so lately and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –
And of his behavior Richard continues to explain, “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, I am determined to prove a villain.” In this production we see none of this though this speech comes near the beginning of the play. What we are offered is a one-dimensional action production which dilutes the play and entirely throws out historical authenticity. While Dede Ayite’s costumes are mostly period there are entirely modern touches like the two young princes, sons of the previous king, wearing gold sneakers.
Instead, Richard is surrounded with people who have disabilities or physical challenges which somehow turns the play on its head: Lady Anne in a wheelchair, two deaf actors use sign language, Richmond (later King Henry VII) has cerebral palsy, and one of the courtiers who plays several roles is a dwarf. Nice to give all of these actors work but in this play it reverses the focus of the story and theme.
Most effective is Sharon Washington as the bitter Queen Margaret, widow of the deposed King Henry VI, often the best role, recalling Marian Seldes’ performance opposite Kevin Kline in the Park’s production of 1983. In both diction and demeanor, Washington is the only one who seems to be at home with the play, not entirely surprising as she appeared in the Park’s last production of the play 30 years ago opposite Denzel Washington as Richard to her Lady Anne.
As Richard III, Gurira is so obviously a villain that it is unaccountable that the other characters do not guess what he is about. As an action hero, Gurira is fine but her voice is so high pitched that one always is aware that we are watching a woman in a man’s role. Ali Stroker’s Lady Anne is also so forceful that it is not believable that she would fall for the villainous Richard’s wooing. Among the rest of the cast Sanjit de Silva’s Buckingham and Ariel Shafir’s Lord Hastings are so gleeful in support of Richard that they add a new dimension to these characters, while Gregg Mozgala (Cost of Living, Tricky Dick) is both persuasive and commanding as the Earl of Richmond, later King Henry VII who follows Richard on to the throne.
Aside from directing Richard III as though it were an Errol Flynn movie, O’Hara’s production starts with the penultimate scene of Henry VII, Part Three in which Richard kills Henry so that the play does not begin with the famous lines “Now is the winter of our discontent…” The play seems to be trimmed in ways that speed up the action so that one murder occurs immediately after the other. The planning of the murders of the two Princes in the Tower of London is so abbreviated that some members of the audience will not know what has happened.
One advantage that this production has over others is that it is very easy to follow and there is no confusion as the warring parties of the Houses of York and Lancaster as is often the case. Unfortunately, Myung Hee Cho’s uninteresting scenery, 12 Gothic arches in silver (which are alternately lit red, blue or white), revolves on a turntable for each scene and then basically goes back to the same configuration as before, while actors often enter or leave on a trap door center stage which grows tedious. Ayite’s generally lavish costumes are eye-filling except for Richard’s all-black outfits.
Free Shakespeare in the Park’s first production of Richard III follows in the footsteps of recent productions of classics which appear not to follow descriptions in the scripts. While not offering anything else, these reinterpretations do a disservice to the original plays as well as audiences unfamiliar with the texts. Robert O’Hara’s production of Richard III may be engrossing, but it is also a total evasion of the play as written by Shakespeare.
Richard III (through July 17, 2022)
Free Shakespeare in the Park
The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater, Central Park, enter at 81st Street and Central Park West or 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in Manhattan
Free tickets distributed at Noon at the Delacorte Box Office to those on prior line, Downtown Distribution Lottery at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place, or by Mobile Ticket Lottery powered by TodayTix at http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: three hours including one 20 minute intermission