Baltimore Shakespeare Festival dresses the Bard's political drama in power suits
Published: December 15, 2010
By William Shakespeare
At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival (St. Mary’s Church, 3900 Roland Ave.) through Dec. 19.
If you’re looking for a feel-good holiday play, Richard III isn’t going to do it for you. If you want to watch people learn and grow, that’s also not going to happen. If you’d like to see evil luxuriating in its own no-good badness, you’re in luck—even more so if you’re seeking a reminder that the lying and backstabbing of modern politics is merely a less bloody version of what went on in the Middle Ages.
Director Michael Carleton modernizes Richard III, replacing doublet and hose with power suits. When King Edward IV (Will Cooke) addresses his new subjects after vanquishing King Henry VI during the War of the Roses, he enters to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” flanked by photographers and video cameras. Banners and video displays dress the stage, and his wife and children smile beside him along with various hangers-on. It’s a scene that feels disturbingly familiar, and suggests that when it comes to vying for power, not much has changed.
After an orange-tanned (nice touch) Edward IV delivers his acceptance speech of sorts and leaves to celebrate his victory, his brother Richard (Seth Reichgott) stays behind. Richard feels that he should be king instead and quickly sets a series of devious plots in motion to get rid of such annoying obstacles as his two older brothers and their kids. Here the video screens that displayed Edward IV’s glad-handing appear to burrow into Richard, showing the darkness of his soul. The fascinating thing about Richard, and what makes him such a difficult role, is that his motivation doesn’t appear to come from a sense of being wronged by his brother or a belief that he could be a better king. It feels to be a combination of base meanness and fear of being rejected for his physical deformities during a time of dances and courtly entertainments. And unlike Macbeth—a similar king killer in many ways—Richard never has any qualms or moments of conscience to make him appear human. He is as giddy a villain as Iago and everyone else in the play is his Othello.
Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s cast by and large does a fabulous job with the material. Reichgott is captivating as the dastardly lead. He manages to wrench every bit of horribleness out of Richard without chewing the scenery. He particularly shines in scenes with his mother (Cherie Weinert) and his brother’s widow, Elizabeth (Susan Rome). In these moments Reichgott shows a side of Richard that is unsure, though without any moral ambiguity. Instead Reichgott highlights Richard’s inability to understand emotions. He can play on people’s insecurities and manipulate their ambition, but somehow, pure emotion with no ulterior motive, as shown by the women in his life, confound him.
Tony Tsendeas practically slithers as the opportunistic Buckingham, William LeDent gives depth to Richard’s lackey Catesby, and Rome’s Elizabeth crackles with emotional intensity. After her husband Edward dies and Elizabeth finds herself and her children living at Richard’s whim, Rome plays the former queen as a mother struggling to do whatever she can to keep her children alive—even if it means swallowing her own rage. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance that goes toe to toe with Reichgott, balancing the play. Jessica Perich, as Anne, does not fare as well. Richard murders her husband and essentially makes her promise to marry him as she walks her husband’s dead body to its grave. Perich’s Anne is angry and shrill, understandable given her character’s circumstances, but too one-note compared to the other performers.
Many of the actors are double-cast, the effect of which is initially off-putting. Paul Edward Hope’s Rivers is so simpering that when he enters later in the play as Richmond, the man destined to end Richard III’s reign, it’s nearly impossible to imagine him as a mighty soldier and leader. Hope’s strong presence as Richmond, however, soon makes you forget his dual roles.
This production is not for the faint of heart. Rivers’ execution is shown on a television screen as if being reported by CNN and the contemporary setting makes the violence all the more unsettling. Not every moment hits the mark—Richard dancing to James Brown’s “I Feel Good” after accepting the kingship is overly cute and the real war footage is in questionable taste—but director Carleton’s point about contemporary politics is well taken and provides a fresh perspective on a 300-year-old play.