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Shakespeare's plays continue to speak deeply to succeeding generations because we bring our own concerns and social contexts to bear in conversation with the texts. Sometimes that comes in the form of production elements or casting decisions. Sometimes it's simply in the decision to perform a certain play at a certain time.
So it's reasonable that many audience members for the production of "Richard III," currently mounted by Actors' Shakespeare Project through March 11, will arrive in their seats expecting some sort of comment on President Trump.
Yet director Robert Walsh plays it straight with this fleet-footed production, utilizing a compact cast of six and no set pieces save the Gothic Revival ambiance offered by the Swedenborg Chapel, across from Harvard Yard. But one thing with particular contemporary resonance that struck me is how the people around Richard, who aided his climb to power, wind up with dirty hands and then are tossed aside when they no longer suit him.
Take Buckingham, played by Michael Forden Walker. He's happy to collaborate when it makes for advancement and proximity to power, but the moment he hesitates at the suggestion of murdering two children, Richard tosses him aside. He loses not just the earldom he was promised, but his head.
Lady Anne (Mara Sidmore) looks past her hatred of Richard to marry him and solidify his uneasy victory over her family; then he kills her when a different match seems more strategically advantageous. Even the hired thug who kills the innocent Duke of Clarence on Richard's order flees immediately in fear of his own life, never collecting his reward.
The toxic dynamic reminded me of today's bad-faith political actors, the ones who spy the opportunity for personal enrichment and advancement in collaboration with an unfit benefactor, but are rewarded for their efforts with costly lawyer bills and public exposure of their incompetence.
For any production of the play, it's essential that Richard come off not only as diabolical but slyly charming. Like Iago, he enlists the audience as his confidant while he hatches his plots. Steven Barkhimer brings a certain beleaguered geniality to the stage that seems a better match with, say, George in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe," a role he excelled in at Lyric Stage Company of Boston last season. I was curious to see if the role of Richard would prove a good match.
From the opening monolgue, this Richard seems propelled not by a lust for power or even self-loathing, but a sort of wry, seen-it-all jadedness that makes it a point of pride for him that even dogs bark at him when he passes. If he was once motivated by genuine grievance, that time is past. He knows he has to be his own best friend and seems to enjoy the company. You get the sense that Barkhimer's Richard is less interested in the actual exercise of power than the gamesmanship it takes for him to aquire it. His performance doesn't have all the blood and thunder you may expect, but it's a well-formed and interesting portrayal.
Paula Plum, who was the Martha in that "Virginia Woolf" at the Lyric, here is a convincing Queen Elizabeth, among other roles. The play has only one battle sequence, near the end, but there is a series of verbal duels filled with bitter wordplay. The one between Elizabeth and Richard, when he perversely entreats her to convince her young daughter to marry him, is stirring.
The play is filled with heated confrontations, and they come across vividly in Walsh's staging, which spreads the action all around the space. The audience feels caught in the middle. But the architecture of the room, including the altar, is invoked more sparingly than it might have been. The performance proves a less obvious fit here than last season's "Hamlet" was at the Church of the Covenant in Back Bay.
The storytelling is very clear, even if it's necessary to let some of the political machinations wash over you as the story leaps along. Newcomers to the play should enjoy that aspect, but it's easy to get confused about who is who at any given moment.
Costume designer Miranda Kau Giurleo outfits the actors in simple, neutral-colored garb and employs the usual techniques to differentiate the characters — adding a sash here and a hat there — but even as a veteran of "Richard III" productions, I sometimes had to wait for an actor to speak several lines before catching on.
Deaon Griffin-Pressley (as Hastings, Rivers, Richmond and others) and Plum admirably create a series of well-drawn characters. Some in the cast seem busy enough managing frequent costume changes while aiding the clear exposition, with less opportunity to dig their heels in on the character side.
This "Richard III" keeps the text at the forefront and avoids distractions or embelishments. Deb Sullivan's lighting design is effective but subtle, and the sound design comes entirely from one live drummer.
The special effect, as it were, is found in these practiced Shakespeareans, comfortably at home in a tale well-told.
Actors' Shakespeare Project's "Richard III" is at Swdenborg Chapel in Harvard Square through March 11.
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