Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Richard III reigns over Del Paso Boulevard

Photo by Lori Ann De Lappe-Grondin

England’s King Richard III, despite a mere two-year reign in the late fifteenth century, remains a mysterious, colorful and controversial figure, especially in America. His reputation as a villain, enhanced by Shakespeare, still continues despite the controversy surrounding it. But Richard’s current English supporters–mainly the Richard III Society (which includes an American Branch)–is dedicated to restoring his crippled reputation.

Though he reigned for only two years, 1483-1485, Richard’s career mirrored the intrigues surrounding Elizabeth I and the Tudor kings, who supplanted him and the house of York. Shakespeare’s version, his fourth play, follows a trilogy about Henry VI and continues Richard’s reputation as a deformed monster. Thus the bard wooed Elizabeth and her court.

Mostly billed as a history rather than a tragedy, the play is obviously less popular here than in the British Isles. Though the cast includes characters who lived before Europeans discovered America, it also provides one of Shakespeare’s famous lines, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” And it opens with Richard’s dazzling soliloquy, beginning with “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York.”

Sacramento’s Big Idea Theatre deserves a medal for offering “Richard III” as its current production. Surprisingly, opening night drew an audience at least twice the usual size, though some freely admitted unfamiliarity with the play and Shakespeare in general. Under Justin L. Chapman’s sharp direction, Brian Harrower in the title role leads an accomplished and polished cast.

Jeffery Heatherly gives strong support as a forceful Buckingham, as do the others, mostly in multiple roles. Particularly memorable is Mariana Seda as both the luckless Anne and the cross-dressed Catesby with an eye patch. Justin Muñoz takes the versatility prize as King Edward, Richmond, Lovell and the ghost of Prince Edward.

The cast is capably supported by Renee DeGarmo’s flexible set design, plus fight choreography by Ernesto Bustos, who also appears as Brackenbury and Rivers. Katie Chapman’s colorful period costumes, though, are confusingly mixed with contemporary dress in what appears to be a fuzzy attempt to make the action timeless The inconsistency led one viewer to wonder if there was some hidden symbolism embodied by the blend of historical periods.

The scenes before intermission focus on what in the trade is called “set-up,” background for the dramatic conflicts to come. The complicated historical and political relationships among the characters, though, become wearying and may have cost the production some of its first audience. Unfortunately, those who gave up lost the dramatic clashes that kept the rest of us alert in the second part..

As the clever, witty and villainous Richard, Harrower had the biggest challenge but met it only in part. Although Richard’s traditional hunchback is minimized, Harrower appears clearly deformed, limping with a gamed leg and a hand that remained gloved and hidden. The complex role, though, demands more than a portrayal of a sore loser.

Shakespeare defines Richard in a traditional opening address to the audience. Yet Harrower’s one-dimensional delivery, words emanating from an embittered cripple, loses some of Richard’s complexity and fascination for us. Richard’s language also reveals a frustrated intelligence, barred from the rewards of the usual courtly life, and consequently seeking gratification through an ability to manipulate those around him. The words thus reveal a secret wink between Richard and the audience.

The production also brushes past a key early scene, where Richard, despite his crippled body, woos and wins the widowed Anne, whose husband he slew in battle. His triumph feeds his hungry ego, a substitute for his inability to love.

But although the production loses some of Shakespeare’s complexity, it provides an interesting revelation of the bard’s power and a rare glimpse at a historical context that we rarely have the opportunity to see.

Performances of Richard III are at 8:00 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through May 9. Sunday matinees are at 2:30 p.m. (April 18, 25, and May 2 only). Regularly priced general admission tickets are $15, with SARTA/League/Seniors/Students at $12. All second weekend tickets are $10 (April 16-18 only). Big Idea Theatre is located at 1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95815. Box office: 916-960-3036. Web site: www.BigIdeaTheatre.com

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