Review - The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's Richard III
Before a frustrated New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses grumbled, "Well, let's build the bastard a theater," and designated city funds to build the Delacorte, Joseph Papp's dream of bringing free Shakespeare to everyone was being achieved by mobile units of actors that toured the city in small scale productions. Now in its second year, The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit has been recreating that experience for audiences that free Shakespeare In The Park cannot reach.
It's a bit like watching an indoor, air-conditioned version of one of the city's numerous no-frills outdoor Shakespeare productions that are presented with youthful zest throughout the warm months. There is no set, save for some moveable blocks that set scenes from time to time. The audience is seated around a 14 x 14 foot playing space with actors - costumed by Linda Roethke in contemporary clothes styled to suggest 15th Century England - seated among them, making for quick entrances and exits. Most of the minimal props are stashed under the actors' seats and there is no lighting design; actors and audience are all seen under the room's normal lighting.
The most prominent set piece on display - a brilliant, darkly humorous idea - is a banner diagramming the complicaTEd Royal line of succession following the reign of Edward III; a scoreboard, you might say, where names are blotted out in bloody red ink as each obstacle between the title character and the throne is gruesomely eliminated.As the scheming Duke of Gloucester, who butchers his way to the crown held by his brother, Edward IV, Ron Cephas Jones is certainly worthy of a full-length production. Not a hunchback, as is typically played, his Richard wears braces on one arm and a leg. His lean figure and drawn face suggest a man who is weary of life's hardships, and his manner of addressing the audience for many of his longer speeches establishes a sympathetic intimacy. He's even convincingly sincere when trying to woo Lady Anne (a fine Michelle Beck) over the corpse of her husband, who he himself has killed.
Aside from Jones, the company's nine members all play multiple roles, highlighted by Suzanne Bertish's viciously hateful turn as the banished Queen Margaret, riveting as she curses the royal family with tragic prophecies.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this production is the context in which we're seeing it. How would the inmates at Riker's react to Richard's violent plots? How would the residents at a shelter for abused women respond to Anne spitting in the face of her intended seducer? How would a resident of a senior center, perhaps one who was once a regular theatergoer but has not been able to attend for many years, feel to once again be able to enjoy this level of acting? Sometimes the thing is much more than the play.
"I am no more humble than my talents require."
-- Oscar Levant