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BWW Reviews: Counter-Productions Stages Intense, Captivating RICHARD III

This month is exceptionally busy on the Rhode Island theater scene. Multiple companies are closing out their regular seasons while others plan to kick off the first shows in their summer lineups. One performance that is absolutely not to be missed the midst of these comings and goings is Counter-Productions Theatre Company's excellent staging of William Shakespeare's Richard III.

Counter-Productions' Richard comes to life in AS220's Black Box Theatre, a cozy, intimate space utilized brilliantly by the company. Actors enter and exit from all sides of the room, even through the unassuming black curtains used to frame the space. This setup puts the audience in the very thick of the action, creating a fabulous "you-are-there" feeling - standing just behind a palace column or hanging tapestry - as Richard's carefully crafted schemes unfold, political alliances form and dissolve, and heartbreak after heartbreak visits the royal family.

Director Terry Shea keeps the narrative engaging with a smart, tight presentation. Props are few in the black box setting (though those employed are well-crafted, from the kingly gilded throne to the intricate royal crown and combatants' glittering swords) and costumes simple and spare, all of which focuses attention squarely on Counter-Productions' utterly superb company of actors.

Michael Puppi heads this outstanding cast in a brilliant performance as the titular Richard. His would-be king is as treacherous and bloodthirsty as ever, but Puppi brings a rascally charm to the role that makes Richard all-the-more dangerous for his flashes of quick, unexpected humor and his silver-tongued powers of persuasion. There is something of the serpent about Puppi's Richard as he revels in his prowess as a master manipulator and delights in the foibles of frail humanity. Though Richard's gleefully unrepentant murders are deplorable, there's no denying the charisma and appeal of Puppi's portrayal; as his friends and enemies soon learn, Richard's smiles and light jests prove even more dangerous than his rage.

Ted Clement appears only briefly as the ill-fated George, Duke of Clarence, but he makes a lasting impression in this production. He so completely inhabits his role that when recalling the horrors of Clarence's nightmarish vision of death and hell, the character's tearful reactions are truly chilling. Clement also brings warmth and earnestness to Clarence's speech to his assassins, and the genuineness of his terror and grief at Richard's betrayal adds to the authenticity of his death scene.

Jonathan Fisher likewise delivers a memorable performance in a short span on stage. His portrayal of the Earl of Richmond is absolutely ideal. Fisher embodies all the noble qualities that so sharply contrast Richard's blackened heart; he is confident without being cocky, cheerful without naïveté, a decisive leader who seeks wisdom from trusted advisors, and a royal leader humble before his subjects and his God. Fisher's compelling performance of Richmond's final speech is steeped in unaffected sincerity and authority.

C.L. Goff brings vengeful vitality to the role of the deposed Queen Margaret. Goff captures the eerie detachment of this royal prophetess, all but spitting her curses in the faces of those who have wronged her. The fiery confrontation between Margaret and Richard is a fabulous scene for Goff and Puppi, intense and rife with danger and malice. Valerie Remillard Myette as Queen Elizabeth and Becky Minard as the Duchess of York also deliver strong performances that depict the depth of the women's bitterness, grief, and anger while gradually tying together the bonds of a sisterhood founded on unimaginable loss.

Steven Zailskas and Kevin Broccoli play Richard's scene-stealing lackeys Sir Richard Ratcliff and Sir James Tyrrel. Zailskas and Broccoli display the hardness that makes them easily bidden to even the most deplorable of tasks, but they also add a wonderful, refreshing dose of humor to the blackest scenes. The preamble to Clarence's execution is especially memorable for the actors' winning gallows humor.

Dan Fisher's lighting design is employed to great effect, both to signal scene changes and for dramatic purposes, such as framing Richard and Richmond's swordplay on the battlefield. In addition, Adam O'Brien's high-resolution projections are used brilliantly in exposition (a red rose withers while the white rose blooms in vigor), to show flashes of Richard's true motives and innermost thoughts, and to provide the ever-growing number of ghostly accusers a platform to vent their complaints.

Counter-Productions Theatre Company presents Richard III at AS220's "95 Empire" Black Box Theatre, 95 Empire Street, Providence, RI. Performances run through May 17 and general admission tickets are $20. Visit www.cptcri.com for more information, or make reservations through Brown Paper Tickets online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1433583.

Photo courtesy Counter-Productions Theatre Company

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