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Richard III

Cry Uncle

Hudson Warehouse, Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, September 1, 2012, (Fourth step, right side)
Directed by Nicholas Martin-Smith

Rivers, with back to Richard, the two looking warily at each other
The two uncles: Jonathan William Minton as Rivers and Vince Phillip as Richard. Photo by Joe Hamel, Hudson Warehouse.

Richard, Duke of York, the short-lived second son of King Edward IV waiting for the arrival of his equally doomed elder brother from Ludlow, describes for his grandmother an encounter he had with his two uncles, Rivers and Gloucester. Matt Ebling, playing the young York in short pants and sucking on a Tootsie Pop, does a spot-on imitation of the pompous Rivers we’ve seen in the performance of Jonathan William Minton (yes, my son) and of the hunchbacked, tic-inflicted Gloucester we’ve seen in Vince Phillip’s portrayal.

It’s a moment that encapsulates the best qualities of this Hudson Warehouse modernish-dress production of Richard III performed in the gloaming of New York City’s Riverside Park: some fine acting in expected and unexpected characters, and an emphasis on often-overlooked relationships in the play. For the two young princes, danger lurks around every uncle, not just the titular Richard of Gloucester.

Director Nicholas Martin-Smith adapted Shakespeare’s script beyond trimming the play to a two-hour run (no intermission) and combining characters. He also rearranged scenes, expanded some characters’ presence, swapped roles, and opened this production with Richard’s murder of Henry VI and Edward IV’s coronation from the end of Henry VI, Part Three. Martin-Smith's malleable ways with the text strike some insightful chords, but just as many discords, too. The most glaring example is his inexplicably switching Richard’s courting of Lady Anne (powerfully played by Amanda Renee Baker) with Hasting’s release from the Tower. This not only disturbs Shakespeare’s groove of characters heading to and from prison, it also ends up juxtaposing Richard’s post-wooing speech (“What? I that killed her husband and his father”) with his woo-planning speech (“What though I killed her husband and her father?”), making Shakespeare look even rawer than he was when he wrote the play. Furthermore, instead of following the corpse of her father-in-law, Henry, Lady Anne comes on with the corpse of her husband, Ned, an alteration for which I can glean no redeeming value, especially as, in this production, we had just seen Henry killed, so his corpse would make more sense.

In his program notes, Martin-Smith says that reaching back into Henry VI for the start of his Richard III provides greater context to Richard’s world. “When you look at the larger story, it’s clear that blood is on everyone’s hands,” he writes. That would be true if he were to do the entire Henry VI series—which I will ever advocate for. In this instance, though, the transferred scenes have the opposite effect of isolating Richard as a sociopath killer. We merely see him stab a chained King Henry (David Allison DeWitt) from behind—vicious murder number one (or, perhaps, number two, since we will see Ned’s corpse in just a bit)—without any context of the War of the Roses that was fought with equal ferocity by Lancastrians and Yorkists.

What inserting the final two scenes of Henry VI, Part Three, accomplishes, though, is a nice segue from play to play. After the murder, Phillip’s Richard pulls off his battle camouflage coveralls to reveal a brown pinstripe suit while Edward and his train descend the steps of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial through the audience. Richard and Clarence swear fealty to the young Edward, Prince of Wales (Drew Rosene), King Edward (Thomas J. Kane) makes his pronouncement of “lasting joy,” and then Richard launches, publically, into his “Now is the winter of our discontent…” speech, which turns soliloquy halfway through.

The two princes are not only present at this coronation scene, they appear in all court scenes up to Prince Edward’s arrival from Ludlow after King Edward’s death. While the Prince of Wales being fetched from Ludlow immediately after we see him with the king in London is a bit awkward, the upside to this interpolation is having the two princes ever present in our conscious. It helps to have talented adults in Rosene and Ebling playing the young boys, too. Another constant presence at the court is Henry Tudor of Richmond. Give Martin-Smith treble credit for this alteration. Thematically, it gives the future Henry VII a chance to observe the politics of the court. Logistically, it allows us to become familiar with such a key character Shakespeare doesn’t introduce until the fifth act. Theatrically, whether he’s simply standing to the side quietly observing or serving as Stanley’s messenger to Hastings, it gives us more of the immensely talented George K. Wells playing Richmond long before his fifth-act speeches and the battle at Bosworth.

Two other constant presences are James Tyrrell and Richard Ratcliff (serving as the second murderer), played, respectively, by Myles Kenyon Rowland and Ian Harkins as young, bratty hooligans. Just their mere presence on stage, melding with the more courtly malevolence of Nick DeVita’s Catesby, injects an air of menace into the proceedings. Lady Anne also appears in every court scene, but this is less than effective. Baker’s Anne holds her own in the wooing scene—she even seems to be holding all the cards at scene's end, contradicting Richard’s confidence that he has won her. Then, suddenly, she’s his wife, strung out on booze or drugs, and enduring nasty treatment at Richard’s hands. This staging ironically supports Shakespeare’s tactic of having Anne disappear totally from sight between the wooing and her learning of her coronation; perhaps even he knew what actresses have long struggled with, that her being won by Richard is just too implausible. Better to get beyond it than expand on it.

Martin-Smith’s direction scores most effectively in emphasizing the presence of Rivers, both by ridding the play of Elizabeth’s previous-marriage sons and incorporating some of their lines into his part and by casting Minton. In bowtie and a four-button formal jacket tightly binding him up like a body cast, Minton's Rivers is not only stiffly pompous but a wary schemer in his own right. You can see the distrust—if not the absolute hatred—seething underneath his veneer as he swears love and loyalty to Hastings at King Edwards’ urging, and he spends most of his time in court hanging around young Prince Edward. In Minton’s playing, Rivers might be as dangerous as Richard; not that he would kill the young princes (after all, Rivers, as Elizabeth’s commoner brother, has no claim to the crown) but he would certainly manipulate an Edward V to his own means. Thus he takes hard the news that Richard has been named Protector.

Hastings (Martin-Smith) is even less comfortable than Rivers in the king-ordered reconciliation; Minton’s Rivers at least acts like he’s sincere whereas Martin-Smith’s Hastings never clears his face of disdain while he makes peace with Queen Elizabeth’s clan. Martin-Smith portrays Hastings as yet another scheming player in the court and rather than gullibility it is hubris that proves his undoing. Meanwhile, Timothy McCown Reynolds’ Buckingham is ever the smooth operator, never letting on his true intentions—his primary goal seems to be wealth rather than power—until he sees the opportunity to safely cast his lot with Richard. He’s delighted in what he sees as the shared crown with Richard, and his pause at killing the princes may be more pragmatism than morality: what greater source of wealth and power could he gain by the murder (especially as he has yet to gain the promised return on his previous investment)? Such wavering, of course, is fatal in Richard’s court.

Roxann Kraemer begins her portrayal of Elizabeth as a politically astute queen, a more commanding woman than an innocent victim of Richard’s machinations. She is undone, however, by old Queen Margaret's appearance. In this instance, losing the context of this play’s prequels undermines this production's characterizations of both queens. In the Henry VI plays, Margaret is a powerful woman—Richard’s equal in viciousness, in fact. She has to constantly fend off rivals in her own court, watches her son get butchered by the Yorks, loses both her lover and her husband, and ends up bereft of everything. In this production, Margaret Catov portrays her as merely insane—Ophelia in a snit (by Shakespeare's own standard, she's not insane: if she were, everybody would humor her by agreeing with everything she says, whereas everybody in Richard III emphatically crosses Margaret).

Rivers holds on to a wailing Elizabeth as Margaret to the right rails away and Anne in the background watches
Former Queen Margaret (Margaret Catov), right, gives current Queen Elizabeth (Roxann Kraemer) an earful of curses while Rivers (Jonathan William Minton) intervenes and future Queen Anne (Amanda Renee Baker) watches in the Hudson Warehouse production of Richard III at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in New York. Photo by Joe Hamel, Hudson Warehouse.

When Margaret first appears and starts her crazy cursing, Kraemer’s Elizabeth tries to physically fight her (she’s held back by Rivers), and the two women comes across as silly, shrill shrews. Thereafter, Kraemer embarks on a portrayal of bereaved victim, wailing her woes and bewildered by Richard’s wooing for her daughter. In Henry VI, Part Three, Shakespeare had drawn Elizabeth’s track as a parallel of Margaret’s: the former a widowed, bankrupt commoner, the latter the daughter of a bankrupt token king, both marrying English kings against the advice (and comfort) of the court. In Richard III, Elizabeth’s life continues to trace Margaret’s, down to the killing of her own Prince of Wales by Richard and his cohorts. Margaret points out this parallel to Elizabeth (heck, even Richard does: “You have all the vantage of her wrong,” he tells Elizabeth), but Elizabeth doesn’t see it until, after the murder of her sons, she again encounters Margaret and solicits from the elder queen advice on how to curse. Conspicuously, that scene of the two queens concludes with Margaret leaving the stage for good and Elizabeth suddenly confronted by Richard wooing for her daughter. Elizabeth's meeting with Margaret should inform her subsequent meeting with Richard, for it’s the moment she diverges from Margaret’s track. To accomplish this, Elizabeth would need to finally see herself in Margaret’s condition; I’m not sure a crazy-lady Margaret could engender such a reading.

Of course, any Richard III’s success largely rides on the humped shoulder of the actor playing Richard. Phillip’s posture suggests a Richard with cerebral palsy, left shoulder hunched up, arm bent, fist clinched, but he also adds in a lolling tongue and nervous tics. This makes for an even more physically demanding performance than most Richards, however the tics and tongue detract from an otherwise commanding portrayal (counter-argument: both the young York and the old Queen Margaret effectively imitate his tics, which generated audience laughter). In the haunting scene, as Richard walks among the ghosts condemning him, Phillips foregoes all his deformities: in his dreams he does not see himself as disabled.

From the start Phillip’s Richard proceeds down his path to power with complete confidence, and he maintains that resolve all the way to the end as his kingdom falls apart around him. Even in the capitulation scene, when he is supposed to appear to the citizens with “a prayer-book” in his hand, Phillip emerges holding 50 Shades of Gray (this may have no deep meaning: my son called it a little Easter egg for the audience). Only when Richard acknowledges that wooing Elizabeth’s daughter after murdering her brothers is an “uncertain way of gain” does he pause in true introspection: “I am in so far in blood that sin will pluck on sin,” he says quietly. Then he shrugs. “Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye,” the pang of conscience already long gone as he gets down to the business of murdering the young princes in the Tower. This Richard engages a courtly manner that belies his tics, misshapen posture, crumpled suit, and twisted tie. Phillip speaks Richard’s verse in a disarmingly contemplative manner that is capable of taking in Elizabeth, Anne, the courtiers, the London citizens, and us, the audience. Even Rivers is fooled. Young Prince Edward remains wary but abides by his “Protector’s” advice.

Only Ebling’s York sees his Uncle Richard for what he really is. He also sees his Uncle Rivers for what he really is. And thanks to this production, for the first time so do I.

Eric Minton
September 7, 2012

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