According to director Wendy Franz’s program notes, this Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III is staged by an acting troupe in the 1850s, with Richard as the ruthless actor-manager. These impresarios, she points out, exploited others as Richard did “for their own gain” — though as far as I know, they never killed anyone. Franz says she also focused on the word “now,” which begins the play (“Now is the winter of our discontent...”), both to show the immediacy of the theatrical experience and to emphasize the fact that the ways in which ruthless dictators seize power are timeless and universal. Although I missed the first ten minutes of the play because of a mix-up about the time, I’m pretty sure most of the audience knew this without the help of the framing, and at least half of us were thinking about Donald Trump as Richard’s lies and cruelties unfolded — though Trump lacks Richard’s brain, physical bravery and silken, insinuating facility with words.
Incomprehensibly, Franz’s frame also implies some kind of loving relationship between Richard and the actor playing Queen Margaret — yes, Margaret, that witchy hurler of insults, the prophetess of doom who calls him an “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.”
Making this a play within a play creates other confusing questions. Does it add any new meaning, and, if so, could you figure out that meaning without the help of the program? If a character seems hammily overplayed for a few moments, is that intended to remind you that he isn’t really that character, but the actor playing him? As for questionable directorial choices — the rather tacky white crosses representing the murdered princes, for example, or the ghosts who haunt Richard’s nightmares the night before battle cavorting like the zombies in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video — are they deliberate or a mistake?
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But even with such confusion, this is a play I find myself admiring more with each production I see for its mixture of nasty, almost-rollicking humor and bloodthirsty horror, as well as the fast-moving plot line and astonishing energy and brilliance of the language. Still, the success of any Richard III depends on the leading role, and Rodney Lizcano is a very interesting choice to fill it — though not an intuitive one. His Richard is an elastic-faced buffoon (Trump again!) with a comic presence that makes his villainies appear even sharper-edged by contrast. When his idiosyncrasies begin devolving into tics, twists and hints of madness, it’s exciting for a while. These tics don’t serve the dramatic scenes at the end well, though: Richard’s terrified response to the nightmare needs to be balanced against his ability to regain composure and lead his men into battle. But he remains an unhinged mess (the real Richard was a formidable warrior), which gives poor Richmond, his opponent, nothing much to fight against.
It’s great to see Sean Scrutchins unleash real power as the villainous Buckingham, providing a kind of mirror image of Richard, and Sam Gregory puts his inimitable stamp on the role of the ultimately wavering Lord Hastings. Lindsay Ryan is a poised Lady Anne, and Betty Hart a strong and dignified Queen Elizabeth — though I had a hard time shaking the memory of Mare Trevathan in the part a few years back, incandescent with fury for her murdered sons and fierce as a lioness in protecting her daughter. An unexpected pleasure is Anne Penner, who takes on the problematic role of Queen Margaret and makes her long, hate-filled rants clear as crystal and her madness almost moving.
Framing aside, this is a pretty solid version of Richard III, though I’d like to have seen less overthinking in the production and more trust in the power of the play itself. Still, in this time of Trump, Richard III is an apt choice for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Consider the play’s many admirers in the despot-ridden Middle East. Bashar al-Assad reportedly watched it in Damascus shortly after coming to power, slapping his knee and laughing at Richard’s faked-up coronation. An Arabic version by Kuwaiti writer Sulayman al-Bassam was produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2009; Dominic Cavendish of The Telegraph compared its atmosphere to “the chilling footage of Saddam Hussein presiding over his career-making purge of the Iraqi Baath party, watching impassively as his foes were dragged off to their slaughter.”
Richard III, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 11, University of Colorado Boulder, 303-492-8008, cupresents.org.