If Peter Dinklage currently appearing as Richard at the Public Theatre in NYC had a supporting cast with the commitment to the Bard's words that Boston actor/playwright John Kuntz enjoys in The Actor's Shakespeare Project's inaugural effort, that productions' reviews might be less apologetic. Former ART company member and Harvard grad Benjamin Evett has assembled a local professional cast with solid and varied experience. Together they've created a "barebones" modern dress production of Wm. Shakespeare's "The Tragedie of Richard the Third", one of the Bard's earlier works which along with "Henry VI 1 & 2" chronicles of the War of Roses between the Houses of Lancaster and York. That civil war ends with the defeat of the last of the Plantagenants and the rise of the Tudor monarchy, Elizabeth the First's family. Shakespeare's main source for the calumny about evil Richard Crookback, used to create his first great villain, was Thomas More's 1515 defamation of that monarch. More got the story from his patron, Thomas Morton, but his histography wasn't published until 1557 after the future saint's execution by Henry VIII. The role was one of Richard Burbage's most notable throughout his career and in the early 19th century, became the signature role of famed English actor, Edmund Kean. In 1820, the flamboyant tragedian played his Richard in Boston not far from the site of this new production. Kean's interpretation became the one to match and still reverberates in contemporary performances.
The venue for this current effort is the historic Old South Meeting House, one of the landmarks on Boston's Freedom Trail, a few blocks from the Old State House and the Burying Grounds. Not used that often for theatrical presentations, this old Georgian church has seen its share of drama, usually in the form of political debate. Old South's acoustics were intended for the projected human voice. While this fine cast doesn't have the consistent tones of a major English troupe, or even Massachusetts' own Linklater-schooled Shakespeare & Company, this ensemble has managed to find common ground and a decent pace from their varied experience. Evett has used the architecture of the hall to good advantage, including a hidden door in the base of the large pulpit giving access to the wide space above, allowing this imposing rostrum to stand in for the infamous Tower of London.
Kuntz's characterization is predictably quirky, drawing on his award-winning solo performances. His Richard is visibly deformed with a noticable hunch, a lift on one shoe, and a withered left arm frozen heart-high against his chest with expressive spidery fingers. After a brief parade of the nobility, and shouts of "God save King Edward", the famous opening speech begins not in satisfaction but with anger, quickly boiling into thoughts of revenge against them all. Perhaps to avoid the comic persona expected of him, Kuntz makes his Richard less humorous than currently fashionable. The schemer then becomes a more interesting foil for the women of the play. The quartet, featured in the famous lamentation scene are Edward IV's wife, Queen Elizabeth, played by Jennie Israel last seen as Lady Macbeth on the Common last summer; his mother, the Duchess of York, played by Bobbie Steinbach, who pranced as Dogberry for the CSC this summer; local diva Paula Plum as Margaret of Anjou, playing archly in couture velvet; and the Project's associate artistic director, Sarah Newhouse as Lady Ann. Newhouse's mature Beatrice at Publick Theatre is only one of her well-remembered roles. The famous wooing scene between Richard and Anne of the corpse of her husband was much more evenly matched than usual.
A fifth woman has been added to the equation in this production, as the role of Buckingham was played, as a woman, by voice specialist Marya Lowry, who got kudos as the Chorus in CSC's "Henry V". Her relationship with Richard is mostly based on greed. Three other gender switched roles were taken by BU Faculty member Paula Langton, who played Queen Elizabeth's supporter Rivers, the hesitant Murderer of Clarence, and the Mayor of London. These changes help free the play a bit from its period, making its moral dilemmas more current. Thus Emerson sophomore, Maureen Regan was every bit the frightened teenager as young Elizabeth, the last matrimonial pawn in this war between families.
Of the various men in the company, Allyn Burrows was genial and George Clarence, Richard's brother and victim, and appropriately officious as Catesby. Reliable Ken Cheesemen, remembered for playing Lear's Fool opposite Austin Pendleton for the New Rep, made a convincing dupe as Hastings. David Evett, the director's Shakespearean scholar father got to tread the boards as the Bishop of Ely, as well as Elizabeth's uncle Grey. Michael J. Walker, an experienced actor and the Project's General Manager played Brakenbury, the Keeper of the Tower. Richard Snee took the role of the politic Lord Stanley as well as the more comic of the Murderers. Greg Steres, new to Boston, was impressive as dying Edward, as well as Tyrell, who reports on the dead of the two young princes. Dorset was played as the youngest lord by Yavni Bar-Yam just back from a summer at RADA. The short heroic role of Henry Richmond, later Henry VII, who defeats Richard at Bosworth field, was taken by the director for the bulk of the run. The part will be passed in the last week to Greg Lockwood from Boston Conservatory when Evett opens in "Permanent Collection at the New Rep. Lockwood incidentally will also touring in the lead of a three person "Cyrano", the New Rep's fall education project.
The production is enhanced throughout by original music, much of it percussion, composed and played by Bill Barclay. Effective simple lighting was done by Michael Harris, Tech Director for the Revels, who perform annually in Sanders Theatre at Harvard built after the Civil War. As an inaugural effort involving some of the best actors in town working as an ensemble, the Actors' Shakespeare Project is off to an impressive start. All contribute their experience with the Bard towards a common goal of playing Shakespeare and letting the poet speak for himself, as he has down the ages.
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