Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Theater Review: For This “Richard III,” Our Kingdom for Danai Gurira

Richard III (c) Joan Marcus

Theater Review: Richard III 
Delacorte Theater (Closes on Sunday) 

Premise: “Richard III” has become the go-to Shakespeare play to highlight a social outcast who is so hated for his differences that he commits to a reign of terror on his way to the British throne. The most famous of the recent Richards is Ian McKellen’s not-very-subtle Nazi Germany allegory. In Shakespeare’s original play, Richard was a “deformed” hunchback, but some directors have experimented with more outsider Richards such as a dwarf (Peter Dinklage in a 2004 Public Theater production), a disabled actor (Arthur Hughes in a current UK Royal Shakespeare Company) and in the current Shakespeare in the Park production, a black woman (Danai Gurira). Director Robert O’Hara’s casting may just be a case of colorblind casting which thankfully is the norm in New York theater, while gender-swapped roles in Shakespeare are slowly making headway, with Helen Mirren playing Prospera in a 2010 “Tempest” film directed by Julie Taymour; an all-male schoolboy 2011 film “Private Romeo” (starring recent Tony-winner Matt Doyle); an all-female, schoolgirl “Mac Beth” by Red Bull Theater in 2019, and most famously, Glenda Jackson as King Lear in the recent West End and Broadway productions. But by having many of the other roles non-traditionally populated as well, with nonbinary, disabled, deaf and colorblind casting throughout, O’Hara must have a clear idea of what it means to cast a black woman as one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains: Richard kills down the royal lineage line (in a very specific order), including children, to make sure he is the next King of England. 

Richard III (c) Joan Marcus

My Take: “Richard III” has never been my favorite of Shakespeare’s many history plays – that honor would go to “Henry IV, Part 1” with the rivalry of Hal and Hotspur as well the always amusing Falstaff making for intriguing drama between the politics of it all. “Richard III,” despite the complex title character, is just a lot of bureaucratic backstabbing with more moving parts to keep even the expert scholar scrambling for a flow chart of characters. And O’Hara’s direction is rather uninspired, with its moving pieces of sharp door frames on Myung Hee Cho’s turntable not helping the audience differentiate the many settings and plot machinations. And there are some odd choices, including an anachronistic coronation dance and a rather anemic final battle that is more symbolic than stirring. But where he does succeed is the impressive cast he has assembled. Besides the towering Gurira as Richard, the production is blessed with a plethora of strong performances, especially Heather Alicia Simms as the most put-upon Queen Elizabeth; Tony Award-winning Ali Stroker as Anne, wielding her wheelchair like a weapon around Richard in their famous “courtship over the corpse” scene; Monique Holt as a regal Duchess of York; and the fierce Sharon Washington as the vengeful Queen Margaret. I would camp out in Central Park all morning to get tickets to see this group of mighty actresses tear the house down. 

Richard III (c) Joan Marcus

VIP:  Danai Gurira. Even with a needless added prologue where we are introduced to her Richard, you can’t take your eyes off Gurira. I don’t watch “The Walking Dead” where I hear she is quite the badass, but she has always made quite an impression in her small but pivotal role as the head of the Wakanda army in the Marvel movies she has been in. But as Richard, she is scheming, she is vain, she is vindictive and yes, she is relatable. Her anger at her circumstance is understandable, her murders and backstabbing, less so. They are all embodied in Gurira’s commanding performance. This is indeed the summer of our much content.

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