mon cher Richard III

My wife and I fondled a Tony award for the first time Friday night courtesy of Bart Sher, who passed the Intiman’s for best regional theater around the audience of his Richard III after-play Conversation. It was smaller and cheesier looking than I expected, though heavy for its size.

The same might be said of Sher’s Richard III, its length cut by a third, presided over by a silent character added to many a scene – King Edward’s Mistress Shore, gaudily dressed like a high-class saloon girl, a refuge from the HBO series Deadwood – typically looking abashed and somewhat confused as to what she was doing here.

Sher adds color through lots of cheesy fight and groping scenes, too, as if this were Deadwood indeed, not Deadwood’s original Shakespeare. After becoming king, Richard doesn’t just verbally abuse the allies of whom he’s become suspicious, but actually beats them up on stage. The women, he doesn’t just seduce and threaten, but grab and grope – most notably Queen Elizabeth, whom he practically molests onstage after she bluffs that she’ll marry her daughter off to him.

And speaking of cheesy, Richard’s finally adversary and successor Richmond, the future Henry VII, comes across as a showy near-psychotic himself, and is made to indulge in a knock-down, drag-out mano-a-mano with Richard outfitter like Captain Hook – who like some kind of Transformer catches him on his hook in risible fashion for a time, until Richmond pulls it off his hand and brains him with it.

What Bart thinks he’s doing with these embellishments is anyone’s guess. They don’t seem to add anything interesting to the play – they’re just odd and off-putting, initially intriguing but finally simply distracting. As is the addition of some lines from the last Henry VI play where Richard compares himself to Machiavelli, right in the middle of the opening monologue, ruining the much admired perfection of its tone and flow.

Finally Sher sends us away into the night with the Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want blaring from the PA system, a weak recollection of the more successfully flip, if also flippant, Happy Trails that came on at the end of his cowboy Cymbeline several years ago.

On the other hand, Sher’s RIII is weighty stuff. We’re not allowed to relish Richard as a cartoon villain, “like Vice in the old Morality,” allowed to struct his stuff for awhile until the morality-play structures of drama and the Tudor outcome of history restore order by giving him what he deserves.

Instead, this Richard is portrayed too realistically, too pathetically, too much like a man whose evil’s moral dimensions we must ponder – instead of simply enjoying his agency as the scourge of God set loose on deserving prey.

Apparently Sher decided, after a Shakespeare hiatus of a couple of years at the Intiman, to bring RIII back onstage because he feels some resonance between it and the contemporary political scene – hence the weightiness. Something to do with having to make the moral choice of whether to follow a hypocritical leader (read Bush) into morally suspect situations, or to resist him and suffer the consequences.

But we Shakespeare lovers know Richard, Richard is a friend of ours – and Bush, whatever his failings (and they are manifold), is no Richard. Instead, as the play progressed after the intermission Richard began to seem more like a Sadaam Hussein, a man who increasingly exposes himself as a totally self-centered, unconscionably murderous tyrant, placing his subordinates in the ticklish situation of hating to obey him, but knowing the alternative is their death – or if they have the balls to flee, the death of those they most love, yet must leave behind.

And unfortunately, that kind of undercuts any Bush parallel, doesn’t it – especially when it wasn’t really there to begin with.

It might sound like I’m panning the play. I’m not – it was definitely a well-done, interesting RIII, if a bit peculiar. But I did have issues with it, and could only wonder why Sher chose this moment to produce it – instead of play like, say, Pericles, which might actually have more resonance with the contemporary political situation than RIII, especially since while the Intiman lacked for Shakespeare, he advanced his New York reputation by directing it at BAM a year or so ago – and chose to give it these strange deformities.

And so during the Conversations with Bart period, where I usually keep my own counsel, this time I actually sought out chairs for me and my wife, instead of hitting the buffet line first as usual, and took the opportunity to ask a couple of questions of Bart and the cast.

First, in response to Sher saying he thought the play resonated well with the Bush regime, I offered my observation that in this production Richard actually reminded me more of Sadaam. I further observed that while Shakespeare’s play flattered Queen Elizabeth by portraying her grandfather Richmond/Henry VII as the hero of the piece, Sher makes him indulge in an undignified mano-a-mano combat with Richard, and also makes him seem kinda crazy himself. Was that intentional?

Bart replied that it was, and he was aiming as usual for ambiguity and complexity, and wanted to suggest that you become like the thing you oppose.

Okay, now, I’m sorry, but that’s not this play, which recalls medieval morality play forms to promote a very defined value structure: Richard evil, Richmond blessed – which might have been clearer if Sher hadn’t cut the part where the ghosts of Richard’s victims, after cursing him, bless Richmond.

Not wanting to make a pain of myself like the RIII Society looney that kicked of the night’s questioning with a distribe in defense of the historical Richard, I didn’t of course say as much. Hopefully my question itself implied it.

Later, after someone else had inquired about the omission of the Richard’s coronation scene, I asked about the additions Sher made – the conflated opening soliloquy, the dumbshow Shore, and a third thing I can’t remember anymore. What was up with these?

Strangely, at first Sher denied the opening soliloquywas altered – but the actor who played Richard contradicted him, and admitted the Machiavel lines from 3 Henry VI were added. Then seconded by rueful noises from his wife – in my favorite scene of the play, she tears Shore away from King Edward’s corpse and throws her headlong on the ground, as if she’s pissed off not only in character, but in her own right that Shore intrudes on the scene – Sher admitted he’d added Shore, because just like historically Queen Margaret was actually dead at the time of the events portrayed, yet haunted Shakepeare’s scene, so he thought Shore should – though again, precisely why seemed obscure.

And again, out of courtesy I didn’t press my case – but merely ventured the observation that according to contemporary evidence, the most popular plays of Shakespeare’s later career were Pericles and a play called, and about, Shore – for which information Sher gave me thanks.

And so I too would give Sher thanks – I really like the jaunty risks he takes with Shakespeare’s plays – if he did a bit more research before rehearsing, and didn’t rely so much on catch as catch can for his technique, but thought a little more deeply about how the theatrical work Shakespeare’s plays performed in their original context might be replicated today.

Don’t try this with RIII: the only work it could perform would be to validate Bush as Sadaam’s scourge. Bring Pericles to Seattle instead: not the way Sher’s probably done it before, unaware of the original mockery it mustered against James and his Bush-like regime, but the way I’d do it – if, like Sher, I only could.

Posted Tuesday, June 27th, 2006 under Uncategorized.

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