Sunday, September 2, 2012

Play Review: King Richard III at Spring Green

Richard III at Spring Green                     Sunday night – August 26, 2012
Commentary by Tom Wilmeth

King Richard was not only stabbed to death on Bosworth Field in the Spring Green, Wisconsin production.  He was cut deeply throughout all five acts. 

The American Players Theater has done an admirable job in presenting Shakespeare’s history play about one of England’s most notorious kings.  It is not a short tale to tell, and when staging Richard III, some editing of the text is logical.  There are various references to the three long Henry VI plays which precede Richard III, including allusions to scenes which the audience has not witnessed and characters they never meet.  Deleting these few lines makes sense.

Director’s Privilege must also be respected.  These are living plays and remain open to various valid interpretations.  Director James DeVita must be commended for striving to assist his audience.  He makes the play’s most ambiguous lines as clear as possible in presenting this fast paced Richard. 

However, even when accepting directorial rights and a certain amount of textual trimming, I am still left with a deep frustration about this production.  I know it is difficult to believe that any play needs more than 3 hours of stage time, but Shakespeare’s history plays are not typical.  When presented in its entirety, Richard III is second only to Hamlet in sheer length, clocking-in at 4 full hours (not counting intermissions). 

This is a long play because it has a lot to say beyond its linear story of a man striving to obtain power and then keep it at any cost.  Much of the writing which elevates Richard III above a plot-driven portrait of power obsession was cut from this production.  Most distressing, the beautifully chilling Clarence’s Dream speeches of Act I, scene iv, were truncated to barely sufficient introductory images.  The discussion between Clarence and his two Murderers on Christ and conscious was completely excised, with Clarence too quickly killed not by drowning in wine, but by summary strangulation.  The subsequent remorse of the Second Murderer was also left unspoken.

These are not the complaints of a textual completest.  The deletion of these characters’ introspection on conscious and the omission of a Murderer’s remorse greatly diminishes two major themes of the play.  Fortunately, remnants of these themes survive in the prophecies of Queen Margaret, played to perfection by Tracy Michelle Arnold who, along with James Ridges’ excellent portrayal of Richard, and Colleen Madden’s Queen Elizabeth, made this irritatingly truncated Richard III a worthwhile if frustrating theatre experience.

Besides the large textual cuts, some odd changes were made.  Early in the play, Richard’s brother George (the Earl of Clarence) is being imprisoned because Richard has poisoned King Edward’s mind with a warning that someone with a name beginning with the letter G will be the king’s demise.  At Spring Green, this letter was changed to a C, which perhaps helps the audience a bit, but we then miss the fact that this G could refer to George just as well as it could (accurately) refer to Gloucester, a.k.a. Richard III.

Another change has to do with a needless, production-long addition.  One of the most difficult scenes for an audience to accept comes in Act I, scene ii, where Richard successfully woos Anne, whose husband and father he has recently murdered.  Ridge and Melissa Graves are excellent in this sharp, if unfortunately deeply edited exchange.  Once Richard weds Anne for political reasons, Shakespeare removes her from Richard’s side.  However, DeVita has Anne serve as Richard’s on-stage shadow for much of the play’s action.  This clutters the audience’s view of Richard’s single-minded quest and repeatedly reminds us of the unlikely pairing of this couple.

There are other small and unnecessary additions to Shakespeare’s text as well as the numerous cuts.  Characters are strangely omitted (Vaughn and Brackenbury) and unneeded business is added (a superfluous note describing the reversal of Clarence’s death sentence).  An opening, non-textual framing scene strives to explain the historical backstory, with mixed results.  Still, this streamlined and very clear production would fully satisfy a Middle School class, and perhaps this is its intended audience.

Near the play’s conclusion, the text is allowed to flower in its nearly complete state.  But here again, questionable editing suddenly disrupt the great penultimate scene where the Ghosts of all those who Richard has murdered return to curse him on the evening before battle.  And curse him they do, or at least some of the Ghosts are allowed to appear.  But following this mutual curse on Richard, Shakespeare then has each of his Ghosts bestow a blessing upon a sleeping Richmond, whom Richard will fight.  These blessings are all omitted.  

By slashing the first acts to focus on the ending, DeVita achieves a hollow victory.  Spring Green’s Richard III is a beautifully staged production – well acted and presented with its own form of clarity.  Sadly, it also serves as an example of a missed opportunity to offer a first rate production of this play.


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