One of the most powerful moments in NextStop Theatre Company’s “Richard III” contains no audible words. It’s near the end of the play; at Richard’s behest, the sinister ruffian Tyrell has murdered the princes in the tower. When monarch and killer meet for a debriefing, they talk in American Sign Language. Bathed in blue light, the sequence is chilling, and not only because of the cold-bloodedness of the talk (even if you don’t speak ASL, you catch the drift) and the sudden quiet. The conversation also underscores Richard’s fiendish genius for communicating in the manner best calculated to get him what he wants.
The scene is one of several smartly conceived touches in director Lindsey D. Snyder’s production, which features both voiced Shakespearean text and ASL, usually in tandem (the all-ASL Richard-Tyrell chat is an exception) and which includes in its cast both deaf and hearing actors. In this version of the tale, Richard is deaf; his lust for power seems, in part, a reaction to the fact that other English nobles, including his relatives, have dismissed and marginalized him because of his deafness.
Bad call, guys! Richard (Ethan Sinnott) is shrewd, poised, competent and a really good talker — witness his success at wooing Lady Anne (Rachel Spicknall Mulford), manipulating King Edward (Bill Fleming) and deflecting the curses of Queen Margaret (Mary Suib). When Richard recruits Tyrell (Charlie Ainsworth), who also happens to be deaf, of course Richard knows how to speak to him.
Sinnott (who, in his day job, heads Gallaudet University’s theater program) delivers Richard’s lines in ASL, the momentum and rhythm of his hand gestures often reinforcing his portrait of a ruthless, brutally efficient, sometimes temper-driven man. The characterization isn’t wholly satisfying because it doesn’t have the strongest through-line: When Sinnott is not airing Richard’s active, evil side — when he is feigning virtue, or is keeping a lower profile as other characters talk — he adopts a dispassionate demeanor that is a little uninvolving.
When Richard is signing, a couple of clever ploys allow us to hear Shakespeare’s words simultaneously. During monologues, one of the cracked, mirrored windows in JD Madsen’s decaying-palace set turns transparent, revealing Richard’s Shadow (Daniel Corey), who speaks the text while Sinnott signs. Corey is an able interpreter (in a poetic bit of doubling, he also plays Richard’s nemesis, Richmond), and the conceit resonates eloquently with the script’s many references to mirrors and shadows.
During stretches of dialogue, one of Richard’s allies — principally Buckingham (Sun King Davis) or Catesby (Ben Lauer) — usually voices his lines, as if carefully following the ASL and vocalizing as an aid to concentration. Both Davis and Lauer do a nice job illuminating their own characters (Buckingham, self-serving but courtly; Catesby, roguishly amenable) while channeling Richard’s remarks.
Not all the supporting turns are as effective. Carolyn Kashner’s Queen Elizabeth comes across as stagey, and Mulford overdoes Lady Anne’s hysterical weepiness early in the wooing scene. On a more positive note, Sandra Mae Frank is expressive and poignant as a conflicted murderer who hesitates when she’s dispatched to murder the Duke of Clarence (Kevin Collins). Suib’s Margaret radiates a piquant air of crazed fury.
And Zach Brewster-Geisz supplies broad but welcome comedy as a dim-witted Lord Hastings, who thinks he needs to speak really slowly and LOUDLY when talking to Richard. The foible is well suited to Hastings, who’s deluded enough to praise Richard for frankness and transparency. (“For by his face straight shall you know his heart,” Hastings blithely asserts, right before Richard orders his execution.)
With its bold approach and ingenious bits of problem-solving, Snyder’s production attests to the resourcefulness and ambition of NextStop, now in its first season as the professional incarnation of Herndon, Va.’s decades-old Elden Street Players. Theatergoers who catch this “Richard III” (not to be confused with the Folger Theatre’s ongoing production of the same play) might particularly remember its “My kingdom for a horse!” Deprived of his ASL interpreter after a shocking bit of battlefield violence, Sinnott’s Richard hoarsely shouts the line himself.
Celia Wren is a freelance writer.
William Shakespeare. Directed by Lindsey D. Snyder; fight director, Casey Kaleba; props designer/assistant director, Kristen Pilgrim; costume design, Erin Nugent; lighting, Sarah Tundermann; sound, Stan Harris. With Marilyn Bennett. About 2½ hours. Through Feb. 23 at Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon, Va. Tickets: $20-$27. Visit www.nextstoptheatre.org or, for tickets, call 866-811-4111.