Culture Vulture: High-Energy ‘Richard III’

Reviewed by Helen Epstein

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III: Every Inch an Evil King. Photo: Kevin Sprague

John Douglas Thompson as Richard III: Every Inch an Evil King. Photo: Kevin Sprague

I saw Shakespeare & Company‘s excellent production of Richard III in Lenox, MA last weekend (through September 5 at Founders’ Theatre), with an exceptionally strong ensemble that was kicked into high gear by a high-energy performance from John Douglas Thompson in the title role.

It’s an unusual production, highlighting comedic elements whenever possible and often bordering on farce. As Ben Brantley pointed out in today’s Times, “the usual perplexing concerns of motive and Freudian pathology . . . are not at issue in this production.” Richard III is who he is: irresistibly, seductively evil, the Devil incarnate. He’s equally manic. In fact towards the end of the play, Thompson plays him as so unhinged by paranoia that I thought of Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in the film The Last King of Scotland.

I attended the play’s first read-through, where Artistic Director Tony Simotes—just out of chemo for cancer treatment—presided with quiet authority. But he proved unable to continue directing, so it’s difficult to know in the end exactly whose sensibility has shaped the production. According to the program notes, Tony Simotes “conceived and adapted” it. Jonathan Croy directed with assistance from Malcolm Ingram. Since they all trained together at Shakespeare & Company and have enjoyed a long collegiality, their ideas blend seamlessly, abetted by the expert execution of a first-rate design team.

Simotes, Croy, and Ingram have been actors at Shakespeare & Company since the early 1980s. I’ve relished their work in multiple productions over the years, often together. Simotes, a former fight director, made such an indelible Puck in 1984 that I still remember his entry swinging on a rope onto the stage of the amphitheater of The Mount in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Croy’s tall, sardonic presence and Ingram’s more stately one have also left clear imprints on my memory.

Those decades of working together pay off in Richard III, as does the fact that several more charismatic Shakespeare & Company veterans—Jason Asprey, Elizabeth Ingram, Rocco Sisto, Tod Randolph, Johnny Lee Davenport, and Annette Miller—constitute the cast. These are artists who take turns as actors, writers, teachers, and directors in Shakespeare and in contemporary works. They are daring, flexible, and, each in his or her own way, charismatic.

Of course, because they are all graduates of Shakespeare & Company’s training program (the Ingrams have been teaching it for nearly 30 years) the text is, as always, unusually accessible. And these veterans are joined by the excellent Nigel Gore, who has become a company regular, and Lela Espericueta, one of the talented newcomers whom Simotes brought in from the University of Wisconsin where he taught.

jonathan-croy-in-tophatI’ve grown to expect excellence from the company and have raved about John Douglas Thompson, Tod Randolph, and Jason Asprey before, so here I’ll focus on the sensibility of Jonathan Croy (pictured at left wearing a top hat), a tall, sardonic presence whose onstage antics have kept me laughing for years. Croy has done some 50 shows with Shakespeare & Company playing mostly comic roles but also Buckingham in an earlier production of Richard III and Sherlock Holmes in last year’s Hound of the Baskervilles and working with young actors.

In this Richard, Croy plays the irrational and the comic for all it is worth, focusing not on exploring layers of character or meaning but accepting what the characters say of themselves at face value. This production feels historically accurate, pre-psychoanalytical, and the pace is commensurately fast. Even the monologues whiz by. All the curses in the play as well as Richard’s hunchback made me think of Verdi’s Rigoletto at first, but soon thoughts of opera segued to operetta.

The Simotes-Croy production comes very close to undercutting Shakespeare’s mediation on evil, but it’s a fresh new look at a classic and well worth seeing more than once.

Helen Epstein will be speaking on Memoir at the Lenox Library at 18 Main Street, Lenox, Massachusetts on Tuesday, August 31.


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