Thursday, July 27, 2017

Richard III at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Richard III. Dir. Doug Scholz-Carlson. Perf. Caroline Amos, Benjamin Boucvalt, Christopher Gerson, Alex Givens, Stephanie Lambourn, Katie LeSuer, Melissa Maxwell, Duncan McIntyre, Christopher Peltier, Silas Sellnow, Jason Michael Spelbring, Emma Bucknam, and Adeline Matthees. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2017. 

This year's Richard III was one of the best plays I've seen at the Great River Shakespeare Festival—and you know that I've seen a lot of great plays there over the years.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot of season left to see the show—and there's not a lot of time in my schedule to tell you everything you should know about the production. This post, therefore, will have to consist of a few highlights or points of note.


First, the lighting was superb. Take a look at the image above. That's from the opening of the second half. The brightly-lit spheres on sticks are wire skull-like structures that were gradually added to the back of the playing space and donned with hats whenever characters died in the course of the play. Later, they were brought forward to represent the ghosts cursing Richard to "Despair and Die" and Richmond to have victory. The silhouette is Richard, replete with forearm crutches, creeping creepily forward like some kind of bottled spider. The screen at the back changed color and had horizontal lighting effects that were extraordinarily effective. Below is another shot to show the change in lighting:


That image can lead us to talk about the set design. R. Eric Stone has done a marvelous job keeping the staging simple but having it hold significance and weight. The branches on the left of the image could swing like a door. I think both it and the screen of vertical branches at the back (which could be raised and lowered) are a visual representation of a speech given by Richard in 1 Henry VI—one that is often imported into productions of Richard III (though not, interestingly enough, this one):
And I—like one lost in a thorny wood,
That rents the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,
Seeking a way, and straying from the way;
Not knowing how to find the open air,
But toiling desperately to find it out⎯
Torment myself to catch the English crown;
And from that torment I will free myself,
Or hew my way out with a bloody axe. (3 Henry VI, III.ii.174-81)
It was beautifully done.


The GRSF takes the text of Shakespeare seriously, and this play was no exception. We got the entirety of Act I, scene iv—the two murderers meeting Clarance—played for its full comic effect. At first, it made the audience uneasy, but then they started to roll with the comic, clownish, almost slapstick characters . . . which made their sudden and dramatic murder of Clarence all the more unnerving. We also got the Three Citizens discussing the affairs of state, which is usually cut. Since these were not excised, the production had a roundedness others sometimes lack.


Related to the above, the play retained its remarkable and macabre humor. The production had a lot of fun with Richard and his play, both on and off stage. For example, here's a video they produced about Richard's intended rise to the throne:

They also supplied this program note—a genealogical table with Richard's notes and to-do list included:

There's a lot of good fun there.

And Then There's Richard

Christopher Gerson's Richard is mesmerizing. He's funny, engaging, charismatic, and utterly repulsive and horrifying. 

He uses arm crutches, making me think of Anthony Sher's portrayal, described in his The Year of the King (for which, q.v.). As a result, he spends nearly the entire play at a seventy- to eighty-five-degree angle. And he uses it effectively. Here's an image that shows the general angle well:

And here's an image that shows him using that angle to get in, in this case, Elizabeth's face:

It's threatening and unsettling, intimate and horrific in equal measures. I loved it. And it also gives him both the suggestion of a bunch-backed toad and a bottled spider—creeping along the outskirts of the stage and suddenly pouncing at various characters.

Gerson's range is delightful. He's pathetic and romantic, furious and insane, and conflicted and confident. This image is from his "I am not in the vein," delivered to Buckingham:

If you didn't know that you don't want to be Buckingham before, you know it then. Even Buckingham knows it then!

Gerson pointed out to me that Richard seldom speaks in straight blank verse after his encounter with Elizabeth in IV.iv. He used that to play Richard's deterioration through the end of the play. The night I watched, the audience seemed to be generally complicitous with Richard in the jocular, humorous opening scenes. But by the time the verse starts to break down, they had turned against him.

And the Rest

The rest of the cast was also tremendous. Margaret was vindictive and great. Anne was regretful and great. Stanley was awkward and great. Buckingham was conspiratorial and great. Clarence was fearful and guilt-ridden and great. I wish I had time and space to detail the way this show gave every role—each one would stand up to close scrutiny.

The Play as a Whole

The production had great unity, passion, and force. The Great River Shakespeare Festival has, once again, provided exceptional theatre to its audiences.

Links:  The Great River Shakespeare Festival. An album of photos from the show.

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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