Thursday, November 22, 2007

Discontented 'Richard'

Richard III
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Michael Kulick and Michael Cumpsty
Starring Michael Cumpsty, Maria Tucci, Philip Goodwin, Roberta Maxwell, Judith Roberts, KK Moggie

November 1 to December 9, 2007
Classic Stage Theatre
136 East 13th Street

Richard III
is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, although the trajectory of its protagonist from family outcast to despised monarch to ignoble death often brands the play as a tragedy. Be that as it may, the production staged by Brian Kulick and actor Michael Cumpsty, who plays Richard, takes the path of least resistance by playing up Richard’s charm, cleverness and ability to talk his false way into–or out of–any situation.

It’s not that this Richard III is a comedy, but it does provides a lot of laughs as Cumpsty–who can speak Shakespeare’s poetry much better than anyone else onstage, which is a major problem–plays Richard as a hammy actor who invites us, the audience, into his confidence. This is shown immediately when Cumpsty speaks the famous opening lines of the play–“Now is the winter of our discontent...”–while looking into a mirror in which he can see himself and the spectators behind him.

This is certainly a valid way to present the play, and Kulick and Cumpsty run with the idea, with the actor constantly playing to–even winking at–the audience as he discusses his malign plans to reach the throne which he believes is so rightfully his. A little of this goes a long way, but Cumpsty is canny enough to make us Richard’s willing accomplices, and he is the rare actor who not only can speak the words well but also make them sound natural, not forced.

Although this Richard III has a very capable Richard at its center, there’s very little else that works. None of the rest of the cast is even near Cumpsty’s league: performers like Philip Goodwin, KK Moggie, Paul Lazar and Graham Winton are very undistinguished in several roles, while Maria Tucci (Queen Elizabeth), Roberta Maxwell (Queen Margaret), Judith Roberts (Duchess of York) and Michael Potts (Duke of Buckingham) can’t compensate for their middling acting with exaggerated declaiming of Shakespeare’s dialogue, ending up sounding next to Cumpsty’s polished professionalism.

Mark Wendland’s set consists exclusively of eight large chandeliers and large mirrors that move up and down, which can be explained away as anything–or nothing; Mark Bennett’s astringent chamber music has its musical moments; Oana Botez-Ban’s costumes are persuasive, considering the limited budget.

Kulick has to take the lion’s share of the blame, though, for mucking up several of the play’s most important sequences: the murderers hired by Richard to do his malevolent bidding are played and directed as if they were Keystone Cops; flags are passed to the audience in a limp attempt to show how Richard has gained the people’s confidence once he is made king; and the climax–which is botched in various ways–ends with Richard looking down the barrel of a pistol, a frankly foolish anachronism.

The main problem with Kulick’s staging, however, is that this Richard III is merely a succession of scenes that never bring about a dramatic culmination or, even more damaging, the emotional release that the greatest Shakespearean tragedies give to the audience. Luckily, Kulick’s paralleling Richard with the abominable administration of George W. Bush is never made explicit.
originally posted on

No comments: