Backstage

This Winter, No Discontent As Richard III

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Geraint Wyn Davies tickled funny bones and charmed audiences at the Shakespeare Theatre Company as Cyrano and as the foolish fop Don Armado in "Love's Labor's Lost." Now, as the title character in "Richard III," the actor says he is trying hard to steer his portrayal of Shakespeare's treacherous usurper away from the crowd-pleasing easy laugh, though Richard is the wittiest of villains.

When Wyn Davies and Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who staged the production, first talked about doing the play nearly two years ago, the assumption was that the actor would use his gift for comedy in a "lighthearted kind of take" on the role. In execution, though, it has been "a darker journey than I had anticipated," says the 49-year-old actor. "I think I'd be doing the character a disservice by trying to sell him as an entertainer. That is a way of doing it, but I wanted to stretch a bit for myself. I wanted to make it less glib."

Wyn Davies says he likes the "butch" quality of the production, with its metallic castle-keep of a set (designed by Lee Savage) and the "mangy" furs that adorn the medieval costumes (by Jennifer Moeller). "It's a very tribal society that they're in," he says of the 15th-century Yorks and Lancasters and their uncivil Wars of the Roses. All the killing just represents "the culling of the herd."

His Richard has a clubfoot, a hump, a withered arm and a scarred face -- all on his left side and a symbolic choice, as the Latin word for left is "sinister." Wyn Davies says he sometimes tries to "play things to the right, which is sort of the clear side, and then I turn the other way, just to the evil side. It's a bit, I suppose, metaphorical, or perhaps it's illustrative, but I enjoy it," chuckles the actor, having a bit of fun with Richard after all.

The built-in humps and hobbles in his costume inhibit his movement just enough to give Wyn Davies a constant reminder of Richard's physical defects "to assist me in finding the evil." Even so, the actor gambols athletically about the set, with its tilted floor, staircases, poles and scaffolds. "It's a workout," he agrees. He has a special therapy table to help readjust his spine after performances, plus frequent chiropractic visits.

Born in Wales, Wyn Davies grew up mostly in Canada, where he acted in Shakespeare and Shaw festivals, and has spent the past dozen years living "between Los Angeles and New York." He starred on the television series "Forever Knight" and more recently has had recurring roles on "24" and the Canadian theater-spoofing series "Slings & Arrows." While he was here last season for "Love's Labor's Lost" he became a U.S. citizen. Theater-loving Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg swore him in. "She made it such a special event," he recalls.

"It was wonderful. You could just raise your hand and say 'I will,' with glee."

Mammoth Achievement

When Kevin Moore took over as managing director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in 1998, the troupe performed in a tiny space at Church and 14th streets NW with a budget of less than $1 million. Now it has an architecturally spiffy space on Seventh and D streets NW with 265 seats and a $2.5 million annual budget.

At the end of March, Moore will start a new job in an old space, as manager of the historic Cleveland Play House. Founded in 1915, it is a "flagship" theater in that city, with multiple stages, a considerably larger budget and a mandate to produce both mainstream and cutting-edge works to appeal to a range of audiences, Moore says. "It's time for a career move and the scale of the operation at Cleveland is certainly going to be larger. I'm looking forward to the challenges of that."

Woolly's Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz credits Moore, who came to Washington from the La Jolla Playhouse, with pushing, planning and negotiating the small company toward its 21st-century goals of a major new space, a bigger budget and a growing audience, all while helping Shalwitz maintain his artistic vision.

"There was something about Kevin's confidence and ability to work with lots of different people effectively and his, just, positiveness, that made everybody feel, 'we can do this,' " Shalwitz says. "Building this theater is going to be his legacy."

Indeed, Moore is "most proud" that Shalwitz is "still picking the plays he most wants to do . . . so far in this transformation, we haven't asked him to change that."


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