'Richard III': Rolling Over The Competition
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 1, 2003; Page C01
Oh, how Shakespeare might have loved the macabre bit of stagecraft that director Gale Edwards pulls off in her compulsively watchable "Richard III." The scene is the famous one in which the brazen Richard displays the breadth of his audacious nature, wooing Lady Anne over the body of her husband, the king whom Richard has just butchered.
The line in question belongs to the grieving Anne -- "See dead Henry's wounds open their mouths and bleed afresh! -- but the imaginative coup is the director's. Edwards interprets Anne's declaration as a direct challenge to her technical crew, and voila! From the wrapped corpse spreads a crimson tide that gushes from shroud to floor.
The chiller-theater effect is one of many moments that are likely to be vigorously chewed over by theater-goers after a visit to the Shakespeare Theatre, where Edwards's killing-fields vision of the play opened last night. Though the Australian director has chosen a modern setting for her production -- the antiseptic lobby of a sinister hospital with, shall we say, unresolved quality-of-care issues -- the lethal goings-on remain positively medieval. Faster than you can say health maintenance organization, heads will roll.
You may scratch your own head at some of Edwards's efforts to fit the square pegs of the play into the round holes of her notions. But it would be folly to try to resist her nervy showmanship. Assisted by a top-flight cast -- and, most rewardingly, by Wallace Acton's showboating sociopath of a Richard -- she treats the audience as if it had come to Shakespeare with much the same expectations as crowds in Elizabeth I's times, with the desire to be spooked, titillated, wowed. To see something they had never seen before.
It's a high-concept approach. The entire corrupted kingdom is sick in the head -- and at heart. No wonder it spawns a latter-day Caligula who can arrange the murders of his brothers, wives, nephews as blithely as if he were ordering a tuna on rye to go. The connection being made to murderous thugs in high places elsewhere is not lost: The conflagration that signals Richard's violent end is punctuated by the sounds of carpet bombing, upsetting echoes of the explosions these days that regularly rock hotel balconies in Baghdad.
The restlessly inventive Edwards, who last teamed up with Acton for the company's recent "Hamlet," invests this blood-soaked and eternally popular history play with so many arresting ideas that the three hours go by in a blur. Cast members make their entrances from a pair of hospital elevators (uh-oh, is that one of Richard's henchmen descending from Floor 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . ?) The methodical elimination of each of Richard's rivals is choreographed as a kind of primer on political assassination: Victims are slashed, gassed, shot, guillotined. And what would a fratricidal coup d'etat be without the prying eyes of the press? Edwards embeds a voyeuristic gaggle of reporters in the tale, and does it without distorting a word of text.
Peter England's set transforms the theater into a killing zone of gray tile and translucent windows; if the sight of a gurney being pushed by an orderly in green scrubs did not induce jitters before, its use here could make you think twice about any future elective surgery.
This is not to say that all the choices make sense. The set is too concretely rendered; it is not malleable enough to accommodate the sprawling terrain of the play, and too often you don't know where specifically the action is taking place.
The caliber of acting, however, is so uniformly impressive in this "Richard III" that you could strike the set and the concept and still be left with a first-class treatment. The play, Shakespeare's first big success, is brimming with big moments and oratorical flourishes. (It is said that Abraham Lincoln loved the opening "winter of our discontent" speech.) From Edward Gero's cameo as a pathetically tubercular Edward IV to Tana Hicken's juicier role as the incensed Duchess of York, this company turns a blind eye to line counts. Commitment is all.
One touching episode sheds light on the depth of the talent pool, and it belongs to the indispensable David Sabin, playing Hastings, the wily lord chamberlain. (Every theater company should have a David Sabin.) The play is all about Richard's grotesquely treacherous willpower; everyone in his way gets a dead-man-walking moment, and when it's Hastings's turn, Sabin's avuncular mien takes on a truly tragic dimension.
Ascending the staircase to the Tower -- for some reason, you can't ride the elevator to your death -- Sabin is bathed in white-hot light. He all but sings us into intermission with his haunting exit line. "They smile at me," he says, "who shortly shall be dead."
It is, of course, the role of Richard that hovers over the proceedings like a satanic colossus. How intriguing to have found a diminutive hurricane to portray him. "Rudely stamped" Richard is often fitted with an outlandish hump, but here it's a minor deformity. What weighs more heavily is the chip on his shoulder. Acton's Richard is the runt of the litter, overlooked, you imagine, because of his size. His brother the Duke of Clarence (a robust Kurt Rhoads) towers over him, as does virtually everyone else. When Clarence realizes it's Richard who is doing him in, the look on Rhoads's face registers the nearly indigestible disbelief that comes with the belated understanding that you have fatally misjudged someone your entire life.
Acton is an unabashed extrovert, and that's right for Richard, who likes an audience even more than he likes murder. (He delivers his famous first lines inauspiciously, draped across the lime-green plastic chairs of the hospital waiting room, as if the character knew there were more dramatic moments to come.) There is a fastidiousness to his portrayal, too; he's like a psychotic Niles Crane. Even if the sight of blood doesn't bother him, his strong sense of entitlement dictates that others do his dirty work.
And true to his overcompensating nature, Acton suggests, Richard is still human enough to crave a disapproving mother's affection. In one of the strongest scenes, Hicken's duchess lays Richard out, telling him bluntly that she wishes she had not given him life. Acton's body language says it all. It's the slack acquiescence of an ill-favored son.
Costume designer Murell Horton rises to the crackling occasion; he outfits the royal women in timeless frocks that reflect their pampered status: Diana LaMar's striking Queen Elizabeth is in severe blue and coiffed in what feels like a homage to Audrey Hepburn. The angular Hicken wears black -- it's perpetual mourning for the duchess -- and looks like a double for Dina Merrill.
In meaty supporting roles, Jennifer Harmon, as mad Queen Margaret, and Daniel Travis, as Richmond, are both so good you'd be happy to see them in even more challenging parts, say, as Lady Macbeth and Henry V. Even the kids are strong, especially Patrick Collins as the doomed heir to the throne.
At the center of the vortex looms Acton, giving flesh to Edwards's notion here of the terrorist-monarch, a product of the bankrupt institutions that allowed him to prosper. "I am in so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin," he declares after adding his wife to the hit list. As this "Richard" suggests, how blood gets spilled is not very different from one age to another.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Gale Edwards. Lighting, Mark McCullough; composer and sound designer, Martin Desjardins; voice coach, Ellen O'Brien. With Caroline Bootle, Emery Battis, John Livingstone Rolle, Michael Kramer, Allan Care, Amanda Whiting, Joe Vincent, Andre Marrero, Christopher McHale, Floyd King, Dan Manning and Joe Tapper. Approximately three hours. Through May 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org