‘Richard’ crippled by era, saved by lead performance

Libby Fry

The show opened at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater last weekend to launch the theater’s 50th Anniversary season. Set just after the end of England’s War of the Roses, in which the House of York defeated the House of Lancaster for the rule of England, the play depicts the rise and fall of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and the last Yorkist King of England (Lee E. Ernst).

The framework of “Richard III” is a complex web of trickery that stems from Richard’s tyrannical motives and his determination to be crowned king. His brother Edward IV (Peter Silbert) has just defeated the House of Lancaster and is now King of England, However, Edward is quite ill, and Richard — whose physical deformities have left him insecure and vengeful — is eager to capitalize on his brother’s terminal condition and further his personal agenda.

It’s not as simple as waiting for his brother to die, though. Instead, Richard must also eliminate the three people blocking his path to the throne: Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York, both sons of Edward IV; and George, Duke of Clarence (Torrey Hanson), brother of Richard and Edward.

After Richard tricks the king into condemning their brother to the tower and has him killed, Edward’s condition quickly declines. He soon dies, and Richard is left with two children standing in his way. He terminates their inheritance, though, by cooking up the lie that they’re bastards and have no connection to the throne. Richard is crowned King of England, and it is simply a matter of time before his downfall.

Ernst is clever and conniving as the cunning king, and he milks Richard’s sarcasm for all it’s worth. The script is loaded with witty puns and asides, and he takes time to enjoy the language, rather than rushing through it as some of his castmates are inclined to do.

One actor who speeds through many of her scenes is Laura Gordon, who plays Queen Elizabeth, the king’s wife. Her husband is on the verge of death, yet rather than show any sort of emotion when talking about this with her son, Lord Grey (Jose Luis Sanchez), she skims right through her lines with a tone akin to one used for discussing castle gossip. As the play progresses past the first couple of acts, though, Gordon becomes more dynamic in her performance and is finally someone with whom audience members can identify.

Another character who is more entertaining to watch near the end of the play than at the beginning is the Duke of Buckingham (Mark Corkins), Richard’s right-hand man in his master plan. His tone is sing-songy and repetitive at first, but as the play progresses he begins to more clearly present himself as someone who is nearly as devilish as his friend Richard.

One of the production’s strongest aspects is its set. Scenic designer Michael Frankel created a simple stage that requires few changes between scenes. Especially interesting is the way the set is incorporated into the death of each character Richard has murdered. There’s a tunnel that goes down into the stage which is uncovered with each new death; the character who has been killed walks into the tunnel flanked in deep, red lights, signifying the evil nature of the killing.

Somewhat unsettling, though, is the era in which the play takes place. Director Eric Simonson has taken “Richard III” out of the context of 15th-century England and moved it to the middle of the 20th century. Rather than making the play into one that is different from the thousands of other productions of “Richard III,” the change turns it into a show that doesn’t quite come together. References to the War of the Roses from characters dressed like Jackie Kennedy are distracting and don’t jive.

Maybe Simonson could have taken the characters out of the 15th century but not assigned them to a specific era and accomplished what seems to be his goal — a Shakespearean play to which everyone can relate. Unfortunately, he didn’t include a note in the play’s program, so it’s impossible for audience members to ever really ascertain if that was actually his intention.

“Richard III” remains one of Shakespeare’s finest plays. Simonson’s take on the locale may not add anything to it, but Ernst’s stellar acting outweighs most of the production’s flaws.