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Friday, January 31, 2014

Folger Shakespeare Theatre's Richard III

I went to see Richard III last night at The Folger Shakespeare Library Theatre in Washington, D.C.
It’s a great show!
You should definitely go see it -- it runs through 9 March.

Drew Cortese as Richard III (all photos by Teresa Wood)

If you are anywhere near Washington, do yourself a favor and buy tickets now:

I am not a professional theatre critic, but I do want to share my thoughts about this production.
This is the third production at the Folger I’ve seen directed by Robert Richmond. I saw his Henry V (review here) and Twelfth Night (review here).
His productions are excellent, and of very high quality. Not only does he seem to get very good actors, he also gets great performances out of them.
The theatre in the Folger itself is modeled after the Globe Theatre. But for this production, the seats have been dramatically re-arranged to resemble how plays would have been performed at Inn-yards.

This is the first time in the Folger’s history that the theatre has been staged in the round, and it brings a very different energy to the production. 
Overall, I was impressed by the staging and the innovative use of the stage itself, how it is lighted from below and the use of trap doors.
The cast was excellent, and very professional. I don’t want to single out any of the actors. They are all good.
But I do want to mention some of the performances that surprised me the most.
I have to mention the superb Richard Sheridan Willis, in the role of Stanley. He was great as Malvolio in the Richmond’s earlier Twelfth Night, and as the Chorus in Henry V

Richard Sheridan Willis as Stanley, crowning Richard

I was very excited to see the role of Queen Margaret. I have never seen it staged before, and I was really looking forward to it. It is a crucial role, and the play really suffers without it. I also think that it was originally played by Shakespeare himself.
I want a Queen Margaret who just rips into the rest of the characters, and Naomi Jacobson was great -- she tore into them like a buzzsaw. She was thrilling!
When Richard gets her to curse herself, the moment doesn’t have the punch it should, but nevertheless I was very pleased to see this role done so well.

Naomi Jacobsen as Queen Margaret

When Richard argues with Queen Elizabeth about marrying her daughter, I really want Elizabeth to abuse him, both physically and verbally. The actress Julie Motyka didn’t disappoint. It’s a great scene, and done very well.

Julie Motyka as Queen Elizabeth

I really liked the two young actors who played the Princes -- and they are real brothers -- Holden and Remy Brettell. 
My only complaint is that I wanted more of them, and the talk about Julius Caesar was cut, which I think is a crucial element in a play regarding how history is re-written, and how “truth” does not “live from age to age.”

The Bretell brothers

But ultimately, this play all boils down to the actor who plays Richard III. 

Drew Cortese was great as the Duke of Gloucester. He had a very good menacing quality throughout, and he was excellent at turning that into humour. 
I was surprised that he didn’t play Richard as a hunchback with a withered arm, especially since the recent skeletal remains of Richard confirmed that he suffered from scoliosis, and therefore had a curved spine.
He played Richard who walks with difficulty, but otherwise he came across as a very strong and energetic villain.
He never left the stage very often, nor for very long, and that is a great choice. In fact, much of the time he stepped off the stage, he lurked in the shadows right in front of me! 
Creepy, but very effective. 
He looked the part of a seducer, and was convincing with Anne, played by the great Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as Anne

What he was lacking, and the play lacked overall, however, was the complicity between Richard and the audience.
He spoke to the audience often, but he didn’t really engage us. With the stage in the round, he should have made use of it, and come closer to the audience, and talk face to face with us. 
Unfortunately, without the complicity, there is less humor. And this can be a very funny play, at almost every single moment.
I recently saw Mark Rylance as Richard (review here) in New York. He was excellent. But even he didn’t fully exploit the comedy in the play.
Richard is supposed to be a wild rampaging boar, and the other characters are in his way.
Queen Elizabeth is a pain. King Edward is a boorish fool. Anne is melodramatic. Queen Margaret is crazy. And so on. Even the Princes are stupid brats. Clarence insults his assassins by saying they are not royal!
Shakespeare wants us to want Richard to kill them all. And laugh.
It’s a strange play for sure, but that was the kind of entertainment 400 years ago in London, at a time when more people were paying money to see bears and hounds kill each other than were going to plays.
Nevertheless, this production at the Folger is well worth seeing, and definitely worth your time.
It is funny enough, engaging enough, and very well acted and directed.
And I can't wait to see director Robert Richmond's next production at the Folger.

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