BWW Reviews: NextStop Theatre's Imaginative RICHARD III Is Mesmerizing and Chilling
Centuries before the Phantom of the Opera, Shakespeare created Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, a warrior so resentful of his spinal curvature, that he determines to leave a trail of blood in his quest to be crowned King. "Since I cannot prove a lover, ... I am determined to prove a villain," Richard soliloquizes.
Danger abounds in viewing Elizabethan values through a modern lens. Yet, nothing in Shakespeare's work implies that Richard's curved back in fact limited him - he fought in battle, he wooed and won the widow of one of his murder victims with his eloquence, and he appears to have interacted normally with loving family members, until he started killing them off. Richard seems an unlikely candidate to have grown so alienated that he transformed into a homicidal megalomaniac.
What if Richard were cut off from the world, not because of imaginary barriers caused by his physical appearance, but because he was born deaf and couldn't communicate without interpreters? That is the premise of RICHARD THE THIRD, as presented in NextStop Theatre Company's brilliant first professional production, which includes both deaf and hearing actors. (This production is not to be confused with the Folger's concurrently-running, traditional production). To ensure that hearing audience members can understand the action, hearing actors speak the lines that Richard and the other deaf characters sign in American Sign Language (ASL). Not only are the performances powerful, but, for the modern audience, the premise that Richard's inability to participate in ordinary interactions with other people because he needs help to interact with them provides a more convincing premise for his rage than does a misshapen body.
Shakespeare's words take on new meaning when Richard tells two assassins (one of whom is deaf) hired to kill Richard's brother, "Do not hear him plead; for Clarence is well-spoken," and one responds, "Talkers are no good doers: be assured we come to use our hands and not our tongues." Even more fitting, Richard's distraught mother, seeking to turn him from his evil ways, begs, "O, let me speak!" and he answers, "Do then: but I'll not hear." Not only does this King Richard indicate that he will ignore his mother's entreaties, but, perhaps unintentionally, conveys the irony that, even if he wanted to renounce violence, he would not be able to hear his mother's plea.
The production's director, Gallaudet University Adjunct Professor Dr. Lindsey Snyder, who is able to hear, is well-known to DC audiences, having appeared locally in plays geared towards hearing and deaf audiences. Gallaudet Associate Professor Ethan Sinnott, director of the university's theater program, and himself deaf, returns to acting for the first time in fifteen years to play Richard. His performance is mesmerizing, conveying emotions running the gamut from feigned warmth to anger and cruelty through his facial expressions, hand motions, and an occasional shriek or spoken word. His sympathetic demeanor as much as his "silver tongue" seduces his victims into doing his bidding. In the case of Professor Sinnott's Richard, looks are deceiving.
They are also deceiving with Sun King Davis's brilliant Buckingham, Richard's confidante and lackey, who loyally supports the king until balking at Richard's demand to arrange the deaths of the legitimate heirs to the throne, Richard's infant nephews. Buckingham is Richard's opposite in all but opportunism - tall, charismatic, and handsome, he serves as one of Richard's translators from ASL to the spoken word. Mr. Davis's mellifluous voice lulls the audience into believing, wrongly, that there is indeed beauty in Richard's soul, and in his own.
In addition to other characters' serving as Richard's on-stage ASL interpreters, Dr. Snyder uses the clever set, designed by JD Madsen, to provide both metaphor and translation for Richard's soliloquys; the soliloquy interpreters stand behind smoky windows clearly intended to signify mirrors and thus become reflections of Richard himself.
Director Snyder chooses to play two key scenes entirely in ASL, reversing the usual position of deaf people as those who must struggle to understand the words of the world around them. When Richard discovers that the henchman (Charlie Ainsworth) hired to kill his infant nephews is deaf, they greet each other as if they were long-lost kin, after which Richard instructs him how to perform the deed. This dramatic scene plays out in total silence, the fascinated audience hanging on every gesture. Whether by the director's design or the coincidence that ASL's gesture signifying murder apparently consists of moving a hand across the throat - a gesture that hearing people can easily recognize - the audience manages to follow the silent action, as it does when the assassin reports his success.
The main complaint that I have about Next Stop's RICHARD III stems from confusion created because the able, thirteen-member ensemble cast must cover an even larger number of characters. Some of the female actors and all of the males except Professor Sinnott and Mr. Davis take on multiple parts. Bill Fleming, as King Edward, Brakenbury, Rivers, and Cardinal Ely, wears a different costume for every role, making it easier for the audience to figure out whom he is each time he enters. However, not everyone has the time to don something new.
Hastings, whose clownish method of addressing Richard is to shout, is no sooner taken to the Tower of London to lose his head than Zach Brewster-Geisz (who also plays a messenger and Herbert) reappears as the far more respectable Lord Mayor of London. Only two of the women hold multiple roles, but the choice to assign one, Rachel Spicknall Mulford (Lady Anne), to play Grey, a man, seems misdirected; having her tuck her long hair into her hat - the only transformation possible in the short space between scenes - doth not a man make.
My second complaint, even more nitpicky, is that rather than clothing the characters in Elizabethan or modern dress, costume designer Erin Nugent chose a vintage look, from approximately the 1940's. I assume that there is symbolism, which I am unable to discern, behind this choice.
Despite these two minor complaints, I strongly recommend NextStop's RICHARD III for its brilliant reimagining of Shakespeare's tale and its strong performances by the previously mentioned actors as well as the rest of the ensemble cast, consisting of Marilyn Bennett, Kevin Collins, Daniel Corey, Sandra Mae Frank, Carolyn Kashner, Ben Lauer, and Mary Suib. Sarah Tundermann designed the lighting, Stan Harris the sound, Casey Kaleba served as fight director, and Kristen Pilgrim served as properties designer. Theresa Bender is the Production Manager with Samantha Owens serving as Production Stage Manager.
RICHARD III is appearing through February 23, at NextStop's Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, Virginia. Ticket prices range from $25 to $27. NextStop's Web site is www.NextStopTheatre.org.
Photo Credits: Rebekah Purcell, VSION