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A CurtainUp Review
Richard III

Since I cannot prove a lover
/ I am determined to prove a villain.

---Richard III
Richard Dinklage
Richard Dinklage
(Photo: Michael Daniels)
It would appear that the Public Theater's timing to produce Richard III, starring Peter Dinklage as the deliciously detestable Richard, couldn't be more perfect. This final play in Shakespeare's tetralogy The War of the Roses, comes right on the heels of The Chicago Shakespeare Theater's New York debut of Rose Rage,that so effectively combined (over the course of five and one-half hours) Henry VI and Edward IV. For those followers of the Bard's history plays, the opportunity to see the long family conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster in all its gory and in chronological order, this Richard III promised something that should have been very satisfying. It wasn't.

The short scene that ends Rose Rage, in which we get a teasing up-close-and-personal peak at the villainy to come, certainly whets the appetite for more. And what could be more exciting than to anticipate a different directorial point of view? Unfortunately Peter Dubois's decidedly cool and studied approach offers little in the way of excitement. Dubois, an Associate Producer at the Public and former Artistic director of Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska, may need a little more time with the company to melt the icy layer that now covers this otherwise pot-boiling history play.

The production begins promisingly with an intriguingly danced and mimed ballroom scene in which the ailing and tottering Edward watches the whirling courtiers. It's downhill from there, however. The impact of the dark and dense doings, primarily Richard's heinous acts, diminish both visually and in the light of too many lack-luster and worse performances particularly by the men. Dubois's straightforward no-nonsense direction could be recognized as mere competency. But he sadly misses by a mile the chance to extract from the text either a corroborating or challenging facet by which we may ponder, as historians still do, Richard's true nature. The text is there (most of it, anyway), to be sure, but the inspiration to enliven it is missing.

The most pleasing thing to report is that 4 foot 6 inch actor Richard Dinklage, whose acting star has risen considerably since his success in the film Station Agent gives a palatable, non-idiosyncratic portrait of Richard that passably sustains itself without chewing the scenery, lisping, or clowning his way to the throne. Perhaps no other Shakespearean role has invited such diverse interpretations. And what devices does a good actor employ to personify this loathsome, yet fascinating, king who manages to manipulate a solid three hours of unrelieved murder and mayhem?

Dinklage's Richard is neither repulsively deformed, nor a demented bell ringer given to impulsive acts. As a matter of fact, Dinklage is a handsome, if very short, man. But, as a king who mockingly eats peanuts during a meeting of the lords; gains questionable stature by stomping across the length of a long table in the council chamber; and gives us a sly glance even as he passionately kisses Lady Ann, Dinklage does perhaps afflict Richard with more than enough questionably obligatory winks, nods and insinuating asides. His Richard does, however, resonate with an insidiously spite-filled air that is also oddly charismatic. If this proves a little dull over the long haul, there are a few welcome moment of wry wit, when Richard realizes that he needs able bodied assistance to ascend the throne that is too highly placed and when he dispassionately replaces the helmet on Lord Hastings' briskly severed head. As always, we are relieved to see Richard's own head taken off with similar dispatch.

The best and most accessible quality to admire about Dinklage is his comfort with Shakespeare's text and his respect for the poetry and verse. It's a pleasure to hear every word made intelligible and every movement so dramatically effective. Because this play is so rooted in one's actor's ability to erect a tower of ever-increasing venom, wickedness and destruction without losing credibility or our interest, Dinklage, at the very least, deserves praise for presenting Richard both as a shameless actor and as a shameful tyrant. Yet, it is a role that he has yet to grow into (no pun intended).

As a whole, the women fare better than the men, holding a firm grip on the histrionics. Isa Thomas, serves up Queen Margaret's horrible prophesies with an unrelenting chill. Mercedes Herrero carries Queen Elizabeth's protracted distress with dignity. Kali Rocha makes us believe that she gets what she deserves as the gullible Lady Anne. But it remains for the always astonishing Roberta Maxwell, to expose, by the sheer force of her portrayal, the grief-stricken core of the Duchess of York.

It is disappointing to see a Richard III that doesn't end with a rousing, fierce, and bloody battle scene. It's surprising that Rick Sordelet, famed for his fight choreography, has come up with a puny battle that comes close to resembling a skirmish in a school playground. On the other hand, Riccardo Hernandez's minimalist setting inhabits the space spectacularly by exposing the theater's ornate ceiling and original structure, and using a backdrop of crimson velvet curtains that part to reveal various parts of the kingdom. Scott Zielinski's dramatically focused lighting and Marina Draghici's costumes appropriately and effectively favor sinister shades of black.
Although this was hardly the best finale one could wish for the blood-curdling War of the Roses, many of us are still disposed to seeing these plays in the light of the current political and social turbulence. The last important production I recall seeing in New York was Richard Eyre's thrilling staging for The Royal National Theater of Great Britain (1992) that starred Sir Ian McKellen, as a most gangster-like royal in a fascist-breeding 20th century. It therefore isn't hard to imagine how a country could have embraced such a fiendish monarch. As such, Richard III remains as stunning a play as you are likely to see about the moral and ethical seduction of an entire society, let alone the virtual annihilation of an entire family.

Richard III Multi-media production
Richard III (London Globe 2003)
Richard II and III A pair of Richards (Berkshires)
Rose Rage

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Dubois
Cast: Richard: Peter Dinklage; George, Duke of Clarence: Ron Cephas Jones; Brackenbury: Jojo Gonzalez; Lord Hastings: Stephen Barker Turner; Lady Anne: Kali Rocha; Lord Rivers: Gareth Saxe; Lord Grey: Shane McRae; Queen Elizabeth: Mercedes Herrero; The Marquess of Dorset: James Yaegashi; Lord Stanley: Thomas Schall; The Duke of Buckingham: Ty Burrell; Queen Margaret: Isa Thomas; Sir William Catesby: Harry Barandes; John, Duke of Norfolk: David Don Miller; Christopher: Matthew Maher; Edward IV: Tom Nelis; Duchess of York: Roberta Maxwell; Cardinal: Tom Nelis; Duke of York: Peter Vack; Lord Mayor: Ron Cephas Jones; Priests: Shane McRae, Gareth Saxe; Tyrel: James Yaegashi; Richmond: Shane McRae.
Set Design: Riccardo Hernández,
Costume Design: Marina Draghici
Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski
Sound Design: Scott Myers
Running time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission
Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street,, 212-239-6200
Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00pm.
Tickets: $50
From 9/21/04; opens 10/11/04
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman based on October 7th press performance
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