Friday, October 11, 2013

RICHARD III and SWEENEY TODD--an impressive duo of bloodbaths at Great Lakes Theater

When Great Lakes Theater’s Artistic Director, Charles Fee, sat down to select the Fall 2013-2014 season, he was either in a laughing bad mood or he decided that what Clevelanders needed, besides watching our pathetic athletic teams, was to have an exposure to blood, manipulation, a reign of terror and a few laughs.  Thus, he chose to bless the north coast with a repertoire of RICHARD III and SWEENEY TODD.

RICHARD III is a historical play by William Shakespeare.  It was believed to be one of the Bard’s early works, supposedly written while he was in his 20s.

The tragedy is part of his First Folio of plays, all of which are based loosely on history, but not necessarily factual.   Due to its length, only exceeded by Hamlet, it is rarely performed in its entirety.  The Great Lakes production has wisely been pared down to about two-and-a half-hours.

The play centers around Richard, a victim of scoliosis and other bodily deformities, including a large facial skin blotch, who is an embittered, power hungry tyrant, with seemingly little or no conscious.

The play is set in the time following the War of Roses, a long civil war in which the York’s gained the throne of England.  There has been a period of peace under King Edward IV.  Richard resents Edward’s popularity and power and will do anything to ascend to the throne, including killing anyone who directly or indirectly gets in his way.

The opening scene finds Richard relating to the audience the pattern of accession to the throne. He explains, in what has become one of Shakespeare’s most quoted speeches, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York; and all the clouds that low’r’d upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried . . ..”  By the conclusion of this monologue the audience recognizes Richard’s envy, and the deception and political manipulation his path will take.

Before Richard gains the throne, he murders or has had killed, his older brother, the husband of the woman he wants to marry, King Edward, his two nephews, and the list goes on and on.

Eventually, his bad deeds catch up with him.  And, in the end, as he pleads for, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” he, as do most classic tragic characters, seems to recognize his evil ways and that he must pay for his sins.  

All is not blood and guts.  The Bard inserts, as he does in many of his tragedies, some comic material.  It’s not the glee displayed in his comedies or farces, but it does counteract some of the angst.

Shakespeare flows philosophical as he uses the central theme of fate, especially as it relates to the tension between free will and fatalism.  And, since the Bard wrote for the groundlings who stood around the thrust stage in London’s Globe Theatre, he has Richard speak directly to them [in Great Lakes’ case, the audience], making us co-conspirators in his plotting.

One of the central themes of Richard III is the idea of fate, especially as it is seen through the tension between free will and fatalism as revealed by Richard's actions and speeches.

The Great Lakes production, under the direction of Joseph Hanreddy, is a compact, quickly moving, audience grabbing staging.  The actors use traditional Shakespearean dialogue, but break the rhythm pattern by speaking meanings rather than rhyme, thus making the oft-difficult for Americans to understand dialogue, clear. 

The horror of all the deaths is tempered by placing most of them off stage and using a clever pouring of blood from the upper balcony into a container below, and changing the stage lighting to red hue, to highlight the murders. 

Richard is effectively portrayed as deranged, projecting erratic emotional highs and lows, rather than making him into a complete lunatic.  This adds reality to the play and the man.

Modern touches such as the use of cell phones, texting, and a mix of eras in the costumes may upset Shakespeare purists, but will definitely appeal to the many students who will attending the productions.

The major flaw is a directing problem that causes difficulty for the patrons sitting to the right and left of the thrust stage.  I was sitting in the first row, two seats from the proscenium wall, and most of the first act I was viewing the actors’ backsides and not hearing lines as the projection was to stage center.  After I moved to the center for the second act, I heard the dialogue and could watch the faces of the actors.  Moral?  Directing a play in a thrust theatre requires certain adjustments in  blocking.

The huge cast is universally strong.  Lynn Robert Berg made a superb Richard III.  His mood swings were realistic and he was totally convincing.  He was so convincing as the “carnal cur” that when he came out for his curtain call on opening night, many in the audience booed the “villain.”

Laura Welsh Berg, in spite of wearing an outlandish dress that resembled something plucked from a bad rack of prom frocks, was compelling as Lady Anne, the widow of Edward (son of King Henry VI).  Also giving strong performances were Darren Matthias as King Edward IV, Lenne Snively as the Duchess of York, Laurie Birmingham as Queen Margaret, and David Anthony Smith as Duke of Buckingham.

Chris Richards and Eric Damon Smith, as the murderers, and Alex Syick as Henry, were also excellent.

Linda Buchanan’s steel and glass dual level set worked well. Michael Chybowski’s lighting design highlighted the ever changes moods. Martha Hally’s costume designs didn’t work as well.  Mixing contemporary and traditional was not the problem, it was the quality of the craftsmanship of the clothing and some distracting style choices.

Capsule judgement: RICHARD is a finely crafted production and is a perfect compliment  to SWEENEY TODD as the partners of the “ maniacs gone wrong” duet that comprises  Great Lakes Theatre’s fall 2013-2014 season. Go see both!

RICHARD III runs through November , 2013.  For tickets: 216-664-6064 or