CSF's Richard Wears Thin

Richard III think the main problem with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Richard III is that it's such a monochromatic production. The play presents Richard's murderous path to power, his brief possession of the crown and his bloody fall at the hands of the heroic Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII and, not so coincidentally, grandfather of She Who Must Be Pleased: Shakespeare's queen, Elizabeth I).

Okay, Richard's evil; lots of people get killed, and since the Wars of the Roses were a struggle between two ruthless factions vying for the monarchy, no one in the play -- with the possible exception of the two little princes who get murdered in the Tower -- is particularly ethical. Even the supernumeraries are somewhat contemptible: The mayor of London's a sycophant, the jailer who tries to comfort Richard's imprisoned brother Clarence is a coward. But that doesn't mean Shakespeare sounded only one note throughout. Richard may be as monomaniacal a chaser after power as one can imagine, but his character, despite the debt it owes to the old-time morality plays, still contains some variation. He seems to feel mild regret, for instance, when he realizes he'll have to kill his longtime co-conspirator, Buckingham. And just before the final battle, having been tormented in his sleep by the ghosts of his victims, Richard suffers a spasm of profound grief and guilt: "I shall despair. There is no creature loves me/And if I die, no soul will pity me." Of course, he rapidly recovers his equilibrium and bustles off to fight. Above all, Richard has some of the funniest lines in Shakespeare. His plotting is done with tremendous relish; he loves manipulating the poor fools around him, and he loves making collaborators of us, his audience, as he does it.

There are voices that provide a counterpoint to Richard's villainy, no matter how muted, weak and despairing they may be. Even the most morally compromised of the characters has moments of insight or conscience. It's impossible not to sympathize with the helpless anguish of Elizabeth, mother of the two slain princes, the righteous rage of Richard's own mother, the Duchess of York and the bewilderment of poor Lady Anne, seduced by Richard beside the coffin of her father-in-law (murdered, like her husband, by Richard himself) and rapidly disposed of after she's served her purpose by marrying him and joining their lineages.

Director James M. Symons has chosen simply to emphasize what's obvious -- that this is a play about evil. In a nod to movies like Blade Runner, the set and costumes are futuristic, done in various shades of black, gray and silver. There are a lot of contemporary-looking black-leather jackets. Lord Hastings (played by Ray Kemble), an interesting character who, after a lifetime of evildoing makes a principled decision to oppose Richard's claim to the throne, hovers like Count Dracula, gaunt and black-cloaked, with a long, thin pigtail falling down his back.

Meanwhile, the ladies tend to be slighted. As written, Queen Margaret is barely human, a harridan who enters periodically to spew curses. I'll admit, she's difficult to interpret. Elizabeth Tanner plays her as a cross between ghost and witch -- justifiable perhaps, but the interpretation occludes the words she speaks. Candace Taylor holds her own as the Duchess of York, but she isn't given much focus in the staging, and Sheryle Wells does a lot of shrieking as Lady Anne. Sarah Lauren Fallon's Queen Elizabeth is the best thing about the evening. Fallon has a lovely voice and presence, and it's left to her to represent anything caring and gentle that remains in the human spirit in circumstances of extreme corruption. I should have liked to have heard her speak Elizabeth's lament for her imprisoned children -- "Pity, you ancient stones, those tender babes/Whom envy hath immured within your walls!/Rough cradle for such little pretty ones!/Rude ragged nurse, old sullen playfellow/For tender princes, use my babies well!" -- but it was inexplicably cut (as were some other significant passages).

There's pathos to King Edward's attempts to reconcile his feuding enemies as he feels death drawing near, but Michael Pocaro's Edward remains remarkably robust throughout. And I think if more care had been taken to individualize the little princes, we would have grieved more for their deaths.

Kyle Haden brings a wry intelligence to the role of Clarence; he does a moving job of describing Clarence's dream -- though I'm at a loss to understand his cheerfulness when confronted by two ruffians with obvious murder on their minds (and really silly mask lights on their faces). Alex Robertson and David MacInnis do yeoman work as, respectively, Buckingham and Richmond.

But, of course, the evening rises and falls with Richard. Chip Persons is a strong actor, with a good ear for Shakespeare and an effectively creepy way of moving. His Richard is thin-blooded and cold. It's an initially effective interpretation, but played with almost no variation, it ultimately becomes tiresome. -- Wittman

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman