Photo by Marc PaschkeGood news: Circus Theatricals hasn’t turned Shakespeare’s hunchback toad, Richard III, into Osama bin Laden (though doubtless some genius will bring that concept to fruition in the next year or two). Rather, with the help of costume designer Emelle Holmes’ bowler hats, double-breasted suits and posh military coats, director Casey Biggs sets the play afloat in England at some point between the world wars. But if Biggs’ staging couldn’t be less topical, actor Jack Stehlin’s impish interpretation of the outcast’s wit, venom, duplicity and doom couldn’t be more relevant — particularly if you have any interest at all in how the poison in one spiteful leader’s heart can seep like sludge into the body politic. Biggs’ strategic transplanting of Richard III into a dubiously defined yesteryear of English history generously allows us enough mental fly space to project the Duke of Gloucester’s villainy onto whatever modern terrorist, dictator, president or prime minister we please. Biggs takes the partisan out of politics and keeps things, well, classic.
The last time Richard III lurched across these very boards (the current production opened last week at the Odyssey Theater) was in 1999, in the person of English – man Steven Berkoff and his solo show Shakespeare’s Villains. Dick 3 was just one of many Shakespearean creeps who were united into Berkoff’s bulging-eyed gargoyle demeanor, menacing basso profundo and cleanly enunciated iambic pentameter. Berkoff was joking, sort of, ribbing the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and its thespian delegates (Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart) for sundry vanities and overacting — the same qualities on which Berkoff has also staked his theatrical career, albeit with tongue in cheek.
I don’t know if Stehlin saw that perform ance, but his Richard III seems a reaction against Berkoff’s melodramatic lampoon, cutting against the grain of the role’s ancient trunk. Stehlin’s eyes twinkle rather than glower — were they not framed by a circle of black makeup, he’d be indistinguishable from Puck. His hunchback nicely tucked into a dandy striped cotton shirt, he cavorts rather than clomps, all the while winking at the audience. In the entertaining Act III, scene VII, when — with the mayor and clergy present and organ music playing softly in the background — Richard yields to the insistence of Buckingham (Alfred Molina) by “reluctantly” accepting the throne, so nimble is Stehlin’s posturing, so lighthearted his timbre, you might check your program to see if you haven’t accidentally wandered into a production of Tartuffe.
You might, that is, if Stehlin’s glibness hadn’t turned so absolutely terrifying as the infanticidal scale of his character’s ambitions slowly unfolded. Playing it this way might even have been a disastrous decision had Biggs not been sufficiently attuned to the art of juxtaposition. Stehlin dances his frolicking ballet on Jaret Sacrey’s austere set — a trio of coffinlike platforms and a trio of scaffolds, through each of which a blue light casts an eerie hue on the latticed steel pipes. Occasional video backdrops of crashing ocean waves or collapsing buildings appear on an upstage wall already emblazoned in paint with twisted, spider-web branches (lights and video by Tim Kiley). All this, along with sound designer Paul Taylor Robertson’s subliminal rumble, holds Richard’s jocular, murderous ascent in a precarious tonal balance between the thunderous and the flippant.
The psychology of that ascent, however, makes less sense. In two similar scenes at opposite ends of the play, Richard woos women who’ve been bereaved thanks to him. In Act I, he stumbles onto Lady Anne (Allison Marich) during a funeral procession for her husband, Edward, Prince of Wales, who was murdered by the man now seducing her in the presence of the corpse. Later, in Act IV, after having arranged for and overseen the assassination of the two child princes who jeopardized his designs on the throne, now-King Richard III approaches their mother, Queen Elizabeth (Jill Gascoine), and, in the midst of her grief, asks for the hand of her daughter. In each of these black-magic scenes, the royal women wail out their protestations before succumbing with a snap, as though Richard had turned a light switch on — or off — in their hearts. But where the perversity of their surrender rings horrifically true, the absence of any apparent emotional tug and pull leaves the viewer less than convinced.
The larger consequence is that if Richard gets his way through strategies that lack believability, his entire rise and fall starts to appear artificial. In a harrowingly beautiful scene, Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York (Strawn Bovee), spits the sort of curses on him that should be any son’s undoing. Bovee’s delivery couldn’t be more eloquent or scathing, but here it bounces off Richard’s Teflon skull and lands on the floor between them. Later, therefore, when his army forsakes him on Bosworth Field and Stehlin proffers teary laments, you have to wonder where such feelings come from, and what we’re supposed to do with them.
Some of the conceptual devices are similarly perplexing. Gascoine’s textured Elizabeth and Molina’s droll Buckingham both speak with English accents — but the queen sounds like a queen from Buckingham Palace, Buckingham like a car salesman from Hackney, and everyone else is clearly from the States. If this is supposed to signify something, I’m lost. Similarly, Neil Vipond’s emotive crone Queen Margaret and the female Nickella Dee Schlanger’s kid prince lend a gender-bent symmetry of male and female, young and old — intriguing, yes, but does it work to some larger purpose?
Despite such impediments, Biggs focuses the drama both visually and in language so richly channeled that his production is eminently watchable, at times inspired. When ailing King Edward IV (Eric Pierpoint) gathers the warring clans around his divan and calls for unity and love among them before he dies, Stehlin’s Richard nods sagely in a silent, sarcastic testament to quixotic peace processes through the centuries — feathers adrift in a world of mortar and steel.