Theater: Murder and mayhem

MSC presents compelling revival of ‘Richard III’

by Charles Brousse

Excepting the comedies, there’s no scarcity of villains in Shakespeare’s 37-play canon. Prominent among these is a bent-backed cripple with a withered arm and leg, whose path to and brief occupancy of England’s throne are recounted in gory detail in Marin Shakespeare Company’s compelling production of Richard III, currently on view in Dominican University’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre.

A glance at the lengthy list of leading actors who have, over the decades, assayed the title role might lead one to wonder why such an unsavory character would be so popular. I think the answer is simple. It’s fun to pretend to be outrageously evil if it doesn’t end up generating a feeling of moral revulsion among the onlookers. Just as today’s filmmakers fill the screen with improbable violence to sell tickets, Shakespeare knew that the people who frequented his Elizabethan Theatre enjoyed watching murder and mayhem, especially when it exposed the foibles of the country’s aristocratic elite. The trick was to make this behavior so extreme that no one would mistake it for reality and then—just in case anyone was offended—make sure the “bad guys” receive their punishment.

For two-plus hours, MSC’s Richard, the remarkable Aidan O’Reilly, hobbles about the stage, spreading his poison, only to end up deserted on the battlefield, offering to exchange his kingdom for a horse, as his enemy, Richmond, closes in to deliver the coup de grace. Everyone out there in the dark can now return home exhilarated by their brush with evil, but satisfied by its conclusion.

Actually, Richard is such a complete monster—lacking even the hint of compassion or honesty—that this balancing act is difficult for an actor to pull off. O’Reilly does it by avoiding the conventional theatricality employed by Laurence Olivier and many others in favor of a natural, disarming delivery of the opening, “Now is the winter of our discontent … ” monologue and continuing with periodic progress updates about the mayhem he intends. It’s a clever gambit. The unexpected openness may soften the image and lead some to believe that we’re dealing with a bored, socially alienated young man rather than a dangerous psychopath. The kind who shoot up schools nowadays.

As corrupt as Richard of Gloucester is, most of the nobles who surround him at the court of ailing King Edward IV (ably played by Michael Schaeffer) are equally so, making them easy targets for his machinations. Those who prefer to play by the rules, like Edward’s brother, the Duke of Clarence and the Queen’s friend, Lord Hastings (solid portrayals by Nick Sholley and Steve Price respectively), are among his early victims.

Michael Ray Wisely contributes a stirring performance as Buckingham, who, spurred by the promise of a sizable land grant, becomes Richard’s partner in crime, only to be dispatched when he refrains from immediately approving the latter’s plan to murder the young heir to the throne (Carl Robinett) and his cousin (Patrick Ewart), who have been unlawfully imprisoned in the Tower of London. Other standouts in the very large cast include Elena Wright (Queen Elizabeth), Livia Demarchi (Anne, widow of Prince Edward, who is seduced into a marriage with his murderer) and Phoebe Moyer as the irascible Queen Margaret.

The production, directed by Robert Currier, is generally sound, though marred by what seems like an unfinished “concept” that mixes unrelated period costumes and activities. For all that, the strength of the O’Reilly-led acting ensemble makes this Richard III a worthy revival of a play that is too often treated as a grotesque cartoon.

NOW PLAYING: Richard III runs through September 27 at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University, San Rafael; 415/499-4488; marinshakespeare.org.

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