Theater review

Washington Shakespeare Company's haunted 'Richard III' isn't haunting enough

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By Celia Wren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010

An intriguing, barbed strangeness permeates Washington Shakespeare Company's season-opening "Richard III" -- and it's not a function of the troupe's long-awaited debut at the Artisphere, the new cultural center in Rosslyn.

Sure, for those long-accustomed to WSC's previous home, the Clark Street Playhouse, the Artisphere is an eye-popping change. The Playhouse was an isolated, slightly creepy, barn-like edifice squatting in the shadows of I-395. Inevitably, an aura of scrappy-underdog audacity clung to the works staged there. By contrast, the spanking-new Artisphere is all bright lights and sleek, modern curves and angles -- it even has a wall relaying video images.

Once you arrive in the black-box venue that houses "Richard III," though, the architectural atmospherics become moot: The intimate theater focuses your attention on the production, which in the hands of co-directors Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee has gained a menacing, decadent and largely compelling exoticism, partly inspired (according to a note in the playbill) by a holiday that the two artists spent in Dubai.

Actors with bizarre, asymmetrical facial markings stalk around in sci-fi-tinged, harem chic (Jessi Cole Jackson devised the costumes) to the accompaniment of designer David Crandall's eerie, techno-flavored soundscape. Bolstering a deliberately disorienting air of modernity, some of Shakespeare's male characters (Lord Stanley, for instance) are played as female characters by female performers, resulting in novel sexual undercurrents. And the number of ghosts exceeds the traditional "Richard III" allotment; as the tale's murder count swells, the victims often reappear on designer Tobias Harding's stark cement-gray set, red netting over their faces signaling their spectral status.

A side effect of this defamiliarizing aesthetic is to significantly shrink the villainy, and even the charisma, of the title character, portrayed by Frank Britton, sporting a hump and a limping, pigeon-toed gait. Britton doesn't radiate cruel strength to begin with -- he's kind of a cuddly-looking fellow, and he doesn't clearly display Richard's Machiavellianism. Further overshadowing Richard's dark side are the sinister surrounding figures -- a guard with an AK-47; two female murderers (Carolyn Myers and Anne Nottage) who look like dominatrixes in fishnets and black-and-scarlet silk, and who slip an ugly eroticism into lines such as, "We go to use our hands, and not our tongues"). When Richard confronts Lady Anne (Mundy Spears), so blisteringly aggressive she could be a girl-gang leader, the play's eponymous bad guy seems downright unthreatening.

Though disappointing, this dynamic doesn't sink the production (which will run in repertory with Friedrich Schiller's "Mary Stuart"): Indeed, it reinforces a broader vision of a world "grown so bad/that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch" (as Richard puts it). And Britton's Richard starts to look more brutal as he disposes of courtiers such as Hastings (an energetic Joe Palka) and Rivers and Grey (the subtly libertine Evan Crump and Gabriel Swee), and the stage becomes emptier.

On opening night, illness sidelined Adrienne Nelson, who ordinarily plays Buckingham; Hardee, script in hand, competently covered the role, even suggesting a flirtatious tension between the character and Richard. (The flirtation doesn't last; soon, the murderers wrap Buckingham in wiring and electrocute him.)

Tottering around with a martini glass, Charlotte Akin is delightfully blowsy as the widowed Queen Margaret -- a woman who relishes her bitterness. Annie Houston makes a dignified Stanley; Karen Novack ably traces the humbling of Queen Elizabeth (at first an arrogant floozy); and Daniel Corey hits the right heroic note as the Earl of Richmond.

Directors Henley and Hardee give the show a pleasingly brisk fluidity, devising ingenious segues between scenes: After Richard has wooed Lady Anne, for instance, the shroud whips off Henry VI's corpse, revealing . . . Lord Rivers, and pitching us straight into the next scene. (Incorporating some shrewd cuts, the production clocks in at 2 1/2 hours).

The indulgence in ghosts is iffier: The phantoms are striking at first, but by the climactic battle scene, there are so many creeping, rolling spooks onstage that the play starts to look like a zombie-themed modern dance production. My kingdom for an exorcist!

Hope the well-groomed Artisphere knew what it was in for.

Wren is a freelance writer.

The Tragedy of Richard III

by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher Henley and Jay Hardee; lighting, John Burkland; fight director, Monalisa Arias; dramaturg, Cam Magee. With Sam Phillips, Brian Crane, Lynn Sharp Spears and others. 2 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 12 at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http://washingtonshakespeare.org.


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