All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Shakespeare offers directors and performers multiple avenues by which to craft a production of his works. Concentration could be on a character, parallel patterns, or a theme. Samantha Reading leans heavily, and revealingly, on the first, character, while shrewdly employing the others in a compelling, illuminating production of Richard III for People’s Light & Theatre Company.
If you ever wanted a primer to England’s War of the Roses, a battle for the throne royal by the York and Lancaster families, Shakespeare has provided one, and Reading is making it into one of the most engaging lessons of all time.
Richard is a member of a family. Within that family is a brother, Edward IV, who serves two stints as King, the first interrupted by the Lancastrian Henry VI, the end of the latter in 1483 presenting an opportunity that ameliorates Richard’s “winter of discontent.”
Edward has two sons and a daughter who are germane to Shakespeare’s play. He has a brother besides Richard, one who is older and would inherit the British throne ahead of Richard if something happened to his children, and the succession came down to his siblings. Edward will die and leave a widow. Before him, the Lancastrian Henry has died and left a mother, once queen via her marriage to Henry VI. Edward is also survived by his mothers, a duchess because Edward is the first Yorkist king, his mother also being Richard’s. Brothers-in-law and cousins also populate Shakespeare’s drama. Reading’s genius is take this genealogy and use it as a fascinating basis for a production. Internecine intrigue becomes a riveting factor as we see how various Lancasters and Yorks use their positions and titles to angle for position and enjoy how wittily and deftly Richard uses relationships to advance his end, to become England’s king in spite of two families’ battles and at least three heirs, two juvenile, ranked ahead of him in the order of succession.
Richard is the catalyst of disorder. He will scheme and plot more cleverly than his rivals, and even his friends, to get the crown he craves. And he will do it with breathtaking cunning that leaves no room for doubt, sentimentality, or conscience.
Richard knows what he’s doing from the beginning. His famous opening speech tells us so. Acquiring his ambition might take some improvisation, but as Richard informs us through Shakespeare’s play, his course and strategy is set. He will make allies and alliances where they are needed. We will find ways to eliminate roadblocks.
One marvelous part of Reading’s production is we truly get to know, listen to, and develop feelings for those human obstacles. Weight and dimension is given to George, the Duke of Clarence (whom Richard dooms by a cryptic use of the letter “G” that could refer to him as the Duke of Gloucester as easily as it does to Clarence’s George); the two princes who you see in London’s Tower as well as going resignedly to it (or hearing that they have); Queen Margaret whose venom cannot be stilled; her daughter, Lady Anne Neville, who becomes Richard’s wife; Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, who puts a curse on her youngest son; and Edward’s Queen Elizabeth, who lines up as one of Richard’s adversary.
In most productions of “Richard III,” most of these characters get short shrift. The princes, as noted, are often not seen, let alone heard from. Margaret and the Duchess get the scenes in which they rave and rail but have other appearances cut. Clarence is a mild fixture and Lady Anne a political device. Only Elizabeth gets full stage time and effect.
Reading is smarter. She fleshes out all of these Plantagenets, Tudors, Lancasters, and Yorks so that we see a complete historical picture and form our own feelings about them. Clarence is always sympathetic, but Reading gives his scenes time and room for the doomed duke to insinuate him in our imagination. It makes his fate all the more harrowing.
This is even more true of the princes. Far from being mere topic of conversation, children who are anonymous except for their useful murder by Richard, we are treated to every scene in which the children are included. We hear the older prince, rightfully Edward V, in Richard’s custody for protection, say he doesn’t want to go to the Tower and ask for other accommodation. We see the princes speaking among each other. We get to know them as people and follow their plight closely. Their deaths are all the more tragic. They are not casual parts of a long, involved story but integral participants whose presence prove how much they matter and how their fates color our idea of Richard.
Reading gives every character his or her due, and none more than her fascinating title figure, confected with gourmet perfection by Pete Pryor.
This is at least Pryor’s second Richard, and this one is richer and more nuanced than his turn in Lantern’s production (which earned a Barrymore Award).
Here the actor is at his peak. He is a rattle snake who lets us see and hear his rattles playing “Taps” and “Pray for the Dead” between choruses of “You’re Going to Hear From Me.”
Pryor’s Richard is aware of what he’s doing every minute. He revels in his cleverness and in his ability to gull and beguile all and sundry to acquiesce to his bidding. Or at least to accept his advancement whether they are pleased by it or not.
Pryor’s Richard makes his luck by persevering, step by step, to eliminate anything that stands in the way of his purpose. His luck begets luck, and when a matter Richard didn’t arrange bends in his favor, he is more ecstatic than ever.
Richard makes no secret of his evil. He finds intrigue and instigation better than vegetating and being ignored by women because of his deformed frame or passed over in court because he is low in rank compared to any of his brothers, nephews, or in-laws via Edward’s Elizabeth. He’s a man of action who makes things happen. If some of those things are nefarious, pish tush. Like many a contemporary politico, he views his end as justifying any means.
Pryor is versatile in the many ways Richard woos, cajoles, negotiates, and assures to fulfill his aim. He can be buttery in his seduction of the slain Lancastrian heir-apparent’s widow as he persuades her to be his bride even though it was Richard’s sword that made her a widow and her slain husband fatherless. He pretends sincere sympathy with Clarence, though he penned the mysterious letter that convinces King Edward to mew him in the Tower. He will be authoritative while seemingly logically plain with the young princes as he insists they reside in the Tower. Rebukes from Anne, Elizabeth, Margaret, and his mother (Duchess Cecily Neville) superficially, and obsequiously, wound him though we know he’s shrugging and muttering, “Yeah, yeah, blah, blah,” while enduring them.
Pryor’s Richard is, more than usual, the master of his game.
And the intellectual part of his portrayal is only half of it. The physical part is a marvel as Pryor, stressing Richard’s lameness, clambers up and down steep, uneven steps, Richard’s crutch, which Pryor fields like a seasoned outfielder, being tossed to him when he arrives at a landing. One-handed, or using a leather hand that attached by straps around his forearm, this Richard can nimbly and lethally handle a sword and flummox any opponent with his feints, thrusts, and parries.
Throughout Pryor’s performance, you see an man who cannot be outwitted or dominated. Until, of course, he harms himself by denying promises to supporters and being despotic as much by nature and instinct instead of fair and just. Richard, in the end, outdoes himself by alienating most of those he has fooled by disappointing them and laughing or retaliating with vengeance when miffed with a complaint.
Reading finds and displays the essence of “Richard III.” She exposes the political workings of a turmoil-ridden period of British history. You understand the sides, see the plotting, cheer or cringe in terror at Richard’s inroads, and witness how all is a matter of manipulation and wielding of absolute power. While parallels to today are not exact, there are contemporary, and even current, overtones in some of Richard’s tricks and his opponents’ ideas of how to thwart them.
The greatness of this production is not only in its different approach, on its emphasis on the domestic, if royal, life of the Plantagenets, and Pryor’s perceptive, vivacious, and wily performance. It’s in how well all of the elements Reading chooses to underscore cohere to keep this rendition of “Richard” absorbing.
The storytelling is enthralling. No knowledge of history or the 15th century significance of these characters is necessary. Reading and company treat you to gripping, involving, entertaining tale of a man with political designs and the family that are tied to power and ways of life that are antithetical to his.
Reading presents true political drama, and she does so with a clarity that reveals “Richard III’ for the masterpiece it is.
This production is tight and concise. Names that barely get noticed in other productions are remembered, as well as the allegiances attached to them. The duchess’s curse, intoned with emotion and seething malice by Peter DeLaurier, is not a dramatic nicety. It’s a potent sequence that moves you and reinforces how dastardly Richard is.
Both the duchess’s opprobrium and Margaret’s denunciation of Richard as a murderer who cheated her of husband and son and pretends to a piety and benevolent he plainly does not feel are delivered from platforms that place the speakers, Alda Cortese’s Margaret in particular, above Richard’s head, as they are making pronouncements from a mountaintop.
This is quite effective. Richard’s wooing of the shocked, insulted Lady Anne is done on an even plane. It’s only when Anne begins to succumb to Richard’s persuasive charm that Reading places Anne of an elevated platform.
You watch this excellent production as you would an Arthur Miller or Eugene O’Neill play with contemporary language and characters. Though it is decidedly classic, Reading’s production is accessible and has a modern feel to it. A great story is being told in a captivating way, There’s not a false note or glaring distraction. This “Richard III” grabs you from Pryor’s first words and never loses your attention throughout.
The cast of this production deserves general acclaim.
Christopher Patrick Mullen rates particular praise for his intense, evocative portrayal of the Duke of Buckingham, a noble who backs Richard’s ascendance even though he knows Richard is not the humble creature flattered by acclaim that he pretends to be.
In Buckingham, you see politics at its most real. No matter the machination, Mullen’s Buckingham will back Richard in anything. Once thwarted by Richard’s caprice, he becomes his enemy.
Alda Cortese puts fire behind Queen Margaret’s accusatory words. You can hear the hate she has for Richard. Peter DeLaurier also puts sting into his curse as Richard’s mother, a part he assumes after being an admirable Hastings, another who expected spoils from Richard’s success but received bitter disdain.
Margaret Ivey is lovely as Anne in the scene in which Richard delays her as she travels home from her husband’s funeral, the husband Richard killed in battle, and asks he to be his bride, which, without telling her, he sees as a great political match. Pryor is wonderful at melting Anne. Ivey is just as adroit being melted. This crucial scene played beautifully, firmly establishing Richard’s skill as a wooer and petitioner and how a noble woman can have her head turned by such charm.
Carl Clemons-Hopkins plays several roles and makes each of them distinct. Mary Elizabeth Scallen is a scorning Elizabeth, the one woman who never succumbs to Richard’s histrionics. Stephen Novelli does well as the counselor, Stanley, and the betrayed brother, Clarence. Christopher R. Brown stands out in a wide variety of parts, but especially as young noble warning about Richard.
Jorge Cousineau’s set is strange and somewhat cumbersome. It is, nevertheless, effective. More telling are Cousineau’s light and sound designs.
“Richard III” runs through Sunday, April 24, at People’s Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Road (on Route 401 just north of Route 30), in Malvern, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sunday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (and Wednesday, April 13). Tickets range from $79 to $27 and can be obtained by calling 610-644-3500 or by visiting www.peopleslight.org. Grade: A+