Trinity Rep’s ‘Richard’ kills, delights

Monday, February 11, 2008

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was not a good man. But if anyone in the audience at Trinity Repertory Company’s “Richard III” isn’t sure about his nature, he is quickly educated as Richard woos the Lady Anne over the still-warm body of her father-in-law, the late king Henry VI, whom Richard has just stabbed to death. She spits in his face – and he slowly wipes away and licks up the saliva.

The creepy, intense and gleefully evil portrayal of Richard by Brian McEleney is the heart of the Trinity Rep production that began Jan. 25 and runs through March 2. McEleney dominates the gory, entertaining play, working the crowd and manipulating characters onstage in a web of political intrigue as he begins a long, bloody climb to the throne.

“Richard III” is the last of four history plays by William Shakespeare about the War of the Roses, the 15th-century civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster for the English throne. Richard and his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Stephen Berenson), work to put their eldest brother Edward (Johnny Lee Davenport) on the throne, killing King Henry VI (Timothy John Smith) and his heir (Charlie Hudson III) in the process.

Edward becomes king, but Richard is not finished with the killing yet, cutting a swath through his family as he strives to become king himself. He reaches the throne only to be reviled as a murderous tyrant and deposed by rebellion.

Trinity Rep tells part of this story by including a section of the third part of “Henry VI” – a trilogy of plays – as a prologue. The script for “Richard III” – one of Shakespeare’s longest plays – is abridged, the entire show running about two and a half hours, with one intermission. It is set on a stark, two-level set of ragged concrete and black metal, with the cast dressed in modern suits and – during battle sequences – camouflage fatigues. Assault rifles and pistols replace the original swords and daggers, and music by Arcade Fire plays at key moments.

The play opens with the soldiers of the house of York, including Richard and his brothers, attacking the Lancaster king and his followers commando-style, scaling the stage’s scaffolding and then striking. They succeed in wresting away the crown, but Richard is left crippled by his wounds, later represented by a sling on his arm and a brace on his leg.

As peace returns to the land and Edward IV reigns over a happy court, Richard emerges and delivers his famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” soliloquy, which traditionally opens the play as a bitter speech. But here, it is delivered as an ironic toast to his royal brother and the peace he has brought to the realm.

Midway through the speech, Richard snaps his fingers, the lighting changes and he turns to directly address the audience, declaring, “Since I cannot prove a lover / to entertain these fair well-spoken days, / I am determined to prove a villain.”

That twisting of language – the double-meanings piled on one another, as Richard says one thing to the characters around him and quite another to the audience watching – is at the heart of Richard’s highly theatrical style. McEleney pulls it off well, at one point wading into the audience to shake hands, like a politician working a rope line, laughing maniacally.

In the first half of the play, McEleney’s Richard is almost gleeful as he twists the world around him to his design, cheerfully murdering those in his way as he ascends to power. But that glee fades in time. In the second half, after he has become king, Richard becomes more paranoid and erratic, as he seems to weary of the killing but knows he cannot stop if he wants to keep his crown. He laments, “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin.”

Richard is a voyeur as well, standing at the side to watch as brutal murders are carried out on his orders, unable to look away as his plots culminate in gory stabbings, shootings and strangulations. He is a creepy figure, seducing the Lady Anne (Angela Brazil) with a frightening intensity and later wooing his sister-in-law (Queen Elizabeth, played by Phyllis Kay) in order to marry her daughter, giving his prospective mother-in-law a passionate, disturbing kiss.

With Richard occupying such a dominant role in the play, other characters struggle to emerge from his long shadow, though the actors’ performances are solid. Berenson’s pitiful, betrayed Clarence and Davenport’s booming, commanding Edward are quickly left by the wayside as the play speeds ahead. Brazil’s Anne at first holds her own against Richard but then gives in to his feigned love, later becoming a victim of the tyrant as he strangles her in bed. Kay’s Elizabeth is a strong figure, as is the Duchess of York, played by Barbara Meek. But most of Richard’s victims pass through the play without much distinction.

The most vivid of the supporting characters is the Duke of Buckingham (Fred Sullivan Jr.), Richard’s ally who orchestrates his rise to the throne. A plump political operative who wouldn’t be out of place on the campaign trail this election year, he is promised an earldom by Richard as payment for his services – but once Richard becomes king, Buckingham becomes an annoyance at best and a threat at worst. His fate is the same as so many others’.

“Richard III” is well worth the short trip downtown to revel in its title character’s delicious menace. The play is in the upstairs of Chace Theater at Trinity Rep, located at 201 Washington St. Student tickets are available for $15.

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