Review: Shakespeare's Tricky Dick RICHARD III Proves A Crooked Villain at The Strand

RICHARD III runs through November 13.

By: Nov. 12, 2022
Review: Shakespeare's Tricky Dick RICHARD III Proves A Crooked Villain at The Strand
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Family gatherings seem fraught? Perhaps not, compared to Shakespeare's RICHARD III, a miserable scoundrel suffering "the winter of our discontent," willing to go to any lengths, including the devastation of his family, to relieve it. Shakespeare's tragedy which recounts the conclusion of the decades-long Wars of the Roses (a red rose being symbolic of the Lancaster faction; the white rose an emblem of York) is a fictionalized construct so popular it has wormed its way into public consciousness as fact, obliterating the actual facts upon which Shakespeare built, with dramatic additions and embellishments, this play. Now, why does that sound familiar?

Strand Theater Company partners with the Maryland Renaissance Festival to present an enhanced, one weekend encore of the acclaimed RICHARD III, which played each Festival day from late August until late October. The Company Of Women, triumphantly debuting with JULIUS CAESAR during MD RenFest's 2019 season, display a strong likelihood of becoming a major theatrical presence in the Baltimore area.

Oh, Shakespeare. Oh, England. Look at you, naming everyone the same names, slaughtering one another willy-nilly and marrying each other's wives. It's so confusing. William Shakespeare, producing what we might nowadays call edu-tainment, wrote a series of History plays leading up to Henry VIII. Richard III, the final in that cycle, theoretically tied up loose ends, demonstrating that the eighth Henry, and thus the first Queen Elizabeth, had exceedingly legitimate rights to the throne of England.

The year is 1485. Much of RICHARD III is inevitable, given the setup at the end of HENRY VI, PART 3; check it out; it's a good read. Though one might hope The Company of Women makes everything perfectly clear in their production of RICHARD III, I must tell you they can't. They're using William Shakespeare's script which res-es us in medias with cruel abandon. His audience (presumably) had seen, or had opportunity to have seen, the previous seven Histories- think Ken Burns, only as live theater. We, for the most part, have not. The machinations of the houses of Lancaster, York, Clarence and Tudor are beyond my ken. One feels the need of a color-coded chart to make sense of it. And behold, here it is, a whole page of familial relationships and script summaries. Beware: spoilers abound.

A brief rundown of relationships important to the show:

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, opens the show.

His brother, Edward IV, is King, and eldest of three sons. George, Duke of Clarence, is the middle son.

Brackenbury, a henchman tasked with unpleasantries, is loyal to his King.

Elizabeth is Queen, married to Edward IV. Their 3 offspring are Edward, Prince of Wales, Richard and Elizabeth. We'll meet Edward and Richard, who are children. Edward IV and young Elizabeth are only referenced.

Duchess Cecily is mother to Edward, George and Richard, and the widow of Richard, their father.

Lady Anne was married to a different, unrelated, Edward, son of deposed King Henry VI, both now deceased.

The Duke of Buckingham is Richard's confidante

Some Backstory:

Edward IV is King, becoming so by deposing Henry VI, who is not the father of Edward, Clarence and Richard.

Anne is Henry's daughter-in-law, having married his son, Edward. When we meet Anne, she's mourning Henry, her father-in-law, not her husband, who died some months ago.

An elder Richard, father to the chap currently onstage (NOT Richard II; that dude was generations ago, and not related), had made a bid for Henry VI's throne, but was unsuccessful and did not survive the attempt.

A guide to the homicides of Richard III- though if you'd rather the plot be a surprise, look at it after you've seen the show.

Dramaturg Tony Koral Evans had plenty to do preparing for this production.

You may have seen Richard III this year at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. This encore production restores scenes cut for time constraints. Additional differences, while not immediately obvious, cumulate into a fundamentally different experience. Bringing it indoors requires what an outdoor setting did not: lighting. An indoor setting provides insulation from ambient sound, such as rustling leaves, wind, distant laughter, applause and shouting. Engagement inside a weatherless theater permits enhanced musical accompaniment. An urban setting eliminates trudging across a field and through a wooded village to access the show. The theater likewise removes the distraction of a turkey leg in one hand and a disposable beverage cup in the other.

By paying close attention to Richard's opening soliloquy, the audience makes sense of the arc of the action that follows with a near-dizzying briskness. This energetic pace, while enhanced by fast entrances and exits, is a product of the script itself rather than injudicious edits. The adaptation, by Dr. John Sadowsky, dispenses with additional machinations that us non-Shakespearean scholars will neither miss nor notice. As far as the additions, I could not determine which they were; the show is seamless in their incorporation.

Most of the twelve-person company members portray multiple roles in RICHARD III. Director Erin Riley and Assistant Director Mary Schmidt Wakefield assure we know whom we are observing by employing many tools: the innate talent of actors to rearrange bodies and features, declarative costuming with color/character cohesion, and assorted props and accessories, so we're never in doubt of the personages, even if we struggle keeping up with the action. Erin Riley's direction is nuanced, fast-paced, and full of emotive expression.

Two characters, representing this script's closest equivalent to 'clowns,' show up in black garb, and perform their sequence with mobile facial expressions conveying varying degrees of character conviction. Julia Link and Judy Streeb race through quicksilver motivation, justification, hesitation and, eventually, execution, of their joint mission, by way of fluid physical and vocal modulations. Though Richard refers to them as "executioners," the program defines them as "murderers." This differing perspective marks the ability to rationalize almost any action for personal gain by reframing it. It seems significant that reframing and conscience are recurring themes in RICHARD III; both are aptly relevant and contemporary.

When we see Streeb and Link again as different people, they very much ARE different people, with no wigs, makeup, nor even hats to signify. With a change of accent and alternate physicality, they convince us of new characters, as all the actors handily do, each actor giving their separate characters different points of balance, gaits or expressions. George, Duke of Clarence, earnestly and piously portrayed by Rachel Arling-Samson, exits early in the tale; Arling-Samson, fortunately, does not, but adds to the action as characters of less political significance. In a role that is rather a glorified henchman, Stephanie Ichnioski plays Sir Robert Brackenbury's character to be not so generic as an unnamed Guard #1, but absolutely avoids taking a stand. Her expressions are those of a mid-level administrant, caught in a hubbub of office backbiting. Playing Lady Anne, who has ample reason to hate Richard and his treachery, Emma Hooks is anguished, angry and horrified. The sequence between Hooks and Karol is flawlessly choreographed, squirmily uncomfortable and absolutely fascinating to watch.

Erin Branigan as Elizabeth, Edward IV's Queen, is savvily regal and cognizant of the precariousness of position. Her comportment and carriage convey a brittleness on the verge of breakage, a condition sometimes at odds with her spoken words. Please admire her stunning red gown. Kaitlyn Fowler, in the role of Buckingham (whom Richard, Duke of Gloucester refers to as 'cousin') plays the part of conspirator with wily eyes and (eventually) penitent poses. As Cecily, Duchess of York, mother to Richard and his elder brothers, Stephanie Phelan imbues the role with furious dignity, providing maternal maturity through her vocal quality and inflection.

Tyrrell, who also conspires with Richard, is given hand-rubbing, mustache-twirling villany by Laurie Simmonds.

Holly Gibbs, playing Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, plays Henry as stalwart and valiant, with a gift for stirring speech. One can nearly see the Holbein portrait in her posture, though her Henry is father to the one Hans the Younger painted in that famous pose. At Richmond's side is his step-father, played staunchly in bearing and speech by Katie Ray Bogdan. It is noteworthy that Bogdan is absolutely believable as a fatherly figure to Gibbs' Henry, despite the actor-to-character age discrepancy.

The need for twelve performers becomes obvious during the later part of the show, which features onstage swordfight sequences. Fight Director Robin Flanagan brings the chaos of a battlefield into the theater, and the action, overseen by Fight Captain Erin Branigan, is conceived and executed in a way that neither confuses the audience nor divides their attention too egregiously. The fracas is enhanced by James Gummer's dramatic drumming.

Naturally, it is Richard himself, performed by the luminous Emily Karol, who carries the weight of the storyline. In the opening soliloquy, we hear that Richard is bitter, bored and vicious. What we do not hear, it being revealed by his brother Edward, in a previous History, is "He's sudden, if a thing come in his head," (HENRY VI, Part 3, Act V, Scene V), but we instead experience this suddenness as we are swept into the spiral of Richard's ambition. Karol's wry asides following (and sometimes during) protestations of love, loyalty and other feigned sentiments draw us inexorably into Richard's world. "I would I knew thy heart," says Anne, as Richard woos her in the face of her raging grief; Karol assures that we DO know Richard's heart. Her mesmerizing performance develops Richard to increasing madness, even suffering an uncharacteristic brief crisis of conscience after unearthly visitations. Karol somehow manages to age herself within the short span of the show, growing progressively more haggard, until Richard's inevitable end is nearly a relief.

The scope of this performance seems as if it will overflow the confines of the Strand's small theater, yet never feels cramped. In a Black Box seating fewer than 60 persons, one may wonder about the audience setup. The Strand ensures everyone a good view, utilizing raked risers with comfortable theater seats, nicely cushioned and of a standard (read: not narrow) width.

Production values are high, though minimal, as Shakespeare's would have been. The set is a two-level staging area, graced by a single throne. In a stunning example of what tech can do for a theatrical production, the Strand-specific lighting design of Laurie Brandon, executed by Stage Manager Aitana Garrison, throws stark shadows and brilliant light puddles. Costumes are immensely illustrative, character-specific props help define who is whom and how they're related, music sets the mood of the moment. Though the music at the outset is in danger of overwhelming the speech of the actors, the musicians quickly scale back their volume to an excellent balance. Original music composed for the show is by Donna Elanor, who is on violin and percussion. Edie MacKay, serving as Music Director, is on guitar, keyboard and effects; Ellie Cattle, viola and bass; James Gummer, percussion. These four musicians truly sell the supernatural sequence, which also boasts a glowing otherworldly light on the face of our slumbering main character.

If you're a textile junkie like me, you'll enjoy having a long look at sumptuous costumes designed and created by Cindy Andersen. You also will behold some near-antique pieces, still serviceable and in use, from 1985 or prior. If you'd like a VERY close look, attend Saturday's Afternoon Tea With Richard III on November 12 at 4:30, either after the 2 PM show or before the 8 PM show to rub elbows with the costumed cast members at Emma's Tea Spot on Harford Road. Purchase tickets here.

RICHARD III is a gem of a performance. The Company of Women - who quite rightly refer to themselves as the She-Wolves- are a force of craftswomanship, the likes of which have not before been seen in the Baltimore theater community. Catch them while you can this weekend, as whatever they do next will likely debut next August, a long 8 months away.

Run Time is 80 minutes, performed without intermission. You may wish to visit the Strand's ADA compliant restroom beforehand.

RICHARD III plays at The Strand Theater Friday & Saturday November 11th & 12th at 8:00 PM and Saturday & Sunday November 12th and 13th at 2:00 PM. General admission, $15, senior/student/artist, $12. The theatre is located in the Hamilton-Lauraville neighborhood (5426 Harford Rd. Baltimore MD 21214).

Ticket inquiries, please contact the box office at (443) 874-4917 or purchase tickets online.

Photo: Emily Karol as Richard III; Erin Branigan as Elizabeth Woodville

Photo Credit: Kevin Hedgecock

Final Factoid: Though it has been proved that Richard III suffered from scoliosis, (from a detailed X-Ray of his skeleton, discovered under a car-park in Leiceister), he was no hunchback. What of portraits that depicted him so? X-Rays indicate (depending on the time of their creation) that a crooked aspect to his shoulders often was added some time after the original painting had been made.