Monday, August 30, 2010

Hump play

This hump is hot! What - you wanted more?

The raves have rolled in this summer for Shakespeare and Company's Richard III - even the Times's Ben Brantley seemed to give it a thumbs-up (although, in a classic case of Brantley-speak, Ben slyly avoided ever ratifying the rave he seemed to be penning). So l thought, in my kindly, optimistic way, that maybe this time the Berkshire institution, so beloved of a certain boomer demographic, might have broken through to some new level.

But they haven't; last weekend Richard III seemed largely like business as usual to me, even though I haven't been to Shakespeare & Co. for several years: emphatic text (so emphatic the cast was sometimes hoarse), some broad, intrusive audience participation, several ideas that didn't quite cohere, some good acting here and there, and a whole lotta gonzo energy. Yes, lead John Douglas Thompson made a surprisingly sexy Richard. He's hot. But as a thought-through performance, Thompson's Richard didn't really exist; one of Shakespeare's greatest characters was here a propulsive blank. I'd be hard put, in fact, to name any clear decisions Thompson has made about the role at all, besides, in classic Shakespeare & Co. style, to play things faster and louder. A few other actors (particularly the women) made headway against his bad example, but they couldn't quite put the production over - although they did make the show intermittently entertaining.

Thus it probably counts as better than the weird "director's cut" at Trinity a year or two ago (which was rarely even entertaining). That production was chock-a-block with concept; this one is relatively free of it, although there were moments when Thompson adopted a servile persona with his victims that were weirdly interesting - even if they didn't "go" with the medieval costuming and headgear (which were lovely but oddly pointless). There was also a hint of symbolic arc at the beginning and end of the show (we first saw Richard sleeping as the curtain rose; from then on, he didn't stop moving until his last sleep on Bosworth Field). But this gambit (if it was one) didn't connect to much else in the production, either.

There's a sad reason for this lack of coherence; the production's original director, Tony Simotes (also artistic director of Shakespeare & Co. itself) had to step down due to illness (Jonathan Croy replaced him, with the help of Malcolm Ingram). Whether or not Simotes - may he be well - had a throughline in mind for the production is something I suppose we'll never know. What's likely is that these two old Shakespeare & Co. hands layered over an inherited concept a mishmash of the troupe's standard tropes; hence so much of it understandably feels like the same old thing.

I do wish somebody in the area could pull off Richard III, though, not merely because it features one of the greatest roles in the canon, but also because it sheds a fascinating light on Shakespeare's development. Scholars usually place the play at the beginning of the Bard's career - generally just after the three parts of Henry VI, probably his first efforts. These lead both historically and artistically into Richard III, of course, but there's an unmistakable gap between them. The Henry VI plays are wonderfully energetic, and kind of scramble all over the map - they're even ornamented with a few great speeches (Gloucester - later Richard III - gets one in Part III). But they don't feel structurally much like "Shakespeare;" they have a "this happened, then that happened, then THIS happened" cable-series quality to them that Richard III, despite its length, marks a noticeable advance from.

For modern viewers untutored in British history, of course, Richard III can still be hard to follow, but it's organized thematically around curses and choruses in an almost operatic fashion (Mad Margaret, for instance, who was actually dead during the period in question, is resuscitated by the Bard purely for thematic - or perhaps musical - reasons). And for the first time (I'd argue) we can feel Shakespeare threading a subtle philosophical idea (about the nature of the political self) through his convoluted action. In short, in Richard III, we can feel Shakespeare learning, after sensing his own virtuosity in Henry VI, how to really organize a complex plot and theme before moving on to the far "thicker" double and triple plots he would favor later.

Hi, I'm completely miscast. Hey - so am I!

And, of course, the play features several stunning set-pieces - not just Richard's soliloquies, but his wooing of Lady Anne (above), and then the political seduction of Queen Elizabeth, the murder of Clarence in the tower, and the finale on Bosworth Field are all among the Bard's most memorable achievements. Indeed, we can tell from the text that the young Shakespeare thought he was hot stuff himself - these scenes often begin with the Bard telegraphing "Don't think I can pull this one off? Watch me!" But alas, only a few of these barnstorming scenes actually came off at Shakespeare & Co. Lady Anne was completely miscast, for instance, so her big scene with Richard went nowhere (and as the scene depends on Richard's psychological acuity, Thompson's attack mode had little chance of making it work, anyhow). As Queen Elizabeth, Tod Randolph likewise at first seemed at sea, and Rocco Sisto gave a surprisingly flat reading of Clarence's famous dream of drowning (although he was beautifully eloquent with his would-be murderers - too bad they were played entirely for laughs!). Meanwhile company stalwart Nigel Gore phoned in his performance as Buckingham - only Elizabeth Ingram impressed as the mad Queen Margaret (although she wasn't nearly as dishabille as we normally see Margaret these days).

To be fair, the production did move uphill. Ingram continued to impress in the second act, while Randolph found a surprising strength in her final sparring with Richard. Meanwhile Andy Talen made a solid, if not quite inspiring, Richmond. And as the murders ground on, the victims (such as Jason Asprey's Hastings) did find touching moments in their rear-view-mirror epiphanies.

Still, I left bored, and puzzled by the many critical huzzahs Thompson and this elaborate misfire had received. Admittedly, I'd just come back from Stratford, where I'd nitpicked over Christopher Plummer's reading of Prospero, so I felt a bit like Dorothy waking up in Kansas. What was most depressing was the thought that, minus the star, and with more coherent direction, the rest of the cast might have pulled this Richard together. But could they have sold tickets without Thompson's presence, and his sexy, "rising actor of his generation" hype (thank you again, New York Times)? Probably not. And therein may lie something like the essential problem of American Shakespeare (call it, perhaps, "the Papp effect"): we want to see, and even revel in, the Bard, but we also want to force him into a pop template which can't contain him, much less do him justice.