Richard III has been this season's most-revisited villain: Not only did two East Bay companies decide, separately, to mount Richard III outdoors this summer, but Christopher Plummer's excellent Barrymore also showed the declining screen legend's failing attempt to play Richard one last time.
Michael Storm did a solid young Richard for the Shotgun Players' "Shakespeare in the Parking Lot" tour -- he thundered in the important bits -- but David Ellenstein, in the California Shakespeare Company's version playing now in Orinda, doesn't thunder so much as snivel. His Richard is smirking, chirping, and smug. This is a chronic problem at CSC, where the lead actors are too happy, too safe, or too languidly directed to be evil. In the company's version of Othello earlier this season Charles Shaw Robinson played a charming Iago, which would have been fine if Iago were supposed to be charming.
A quick plot summary: It's near the end of the War of the Roses, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, kills and connives his way onto the English throne. His back is hunched, his arm is "like a blasted sapling, wither'd up," and morally he's in no better shape. He disposes of his brothers, Edward IV and George, who are respectively king and in line to be king, then marries his nephew's widow, Lady Anne, having killed her husband in an earlier play. He double-crosses Anne and his own loyalists after the court crowns him Richard III; he brings violence back to England after a few years' uneasy peace. He needs to be deposed, and is, finally, by the noble Earl of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII, grandfather to Elizabeth I.
For Shakespeare's audiences the play was both melodramatic recent history and Antigone-level tragedy, all in a single script. But most of the Orinda production is kitsch, from the canned electronic soundtrack to the phony fight scenes and even the strangely unaffecting ghost-visitation at the end. Ellenstein makes a watery Richard; Deanne Lorette is a bland Lady Anne; other players seem empty in voice and face. Molly Mayock as Queen Margaret gives the only really free performance -- upstaging everyone, as she did in Othello -- with her outraged grief. I wish she could have played Richard.
Charles Shaw Robinson makes the most of Buckingham's final scene -- full of darkness and falling cadences -- but otherwise he's merely in command of his lines. Ellenstein's Richard does change after he gets to be king; he becomes snappish and commanding, which is an improvement over smug -- but there's something weird about a production that makes the crippled king's bid to Queen Elizabeth for her young daughter (after he's murdered Lady Anne) funny, never mind sickeningly relevant, as if the girl were a 15th-century intern.
"Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?" Maybe, but do we need to be reminded?
-- Michael Scott Moore
Out of This World
Map, String Quartet, Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner? Performed by Lines Contemporary Ballet. Directed by Alonzo King. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third Street), Sept. 11-20. Call 978-ARTS.
There were knockout moments in the world premiere of Alonzo King's Who Dressed You Like a Foreigner?, most notably those generated by recent company additions Ryan Brooke Taylor and Xavier Ferla. And the dancing found a serious rival for attention in the score, which Indian tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain created in collaboration with King and performed live from his dimly lit perch in the orchestra pit.
Structured like last season's Tarab, which King created with Nubian composer Hamza El Din, Foreigner is broken down into simply titled sections ("Duty," "Faith," etc.) in which solo and ensemble work overlaps. As with Din's piece, Foreigner opens with a prelude that prepares viewers for the complex soundscape that follows, a burbling score layered with the rhythmic slap of Hussain's tabla playing, hand-held instruments, and the elastic and often mournful tones of Hussain's own voice. King has crafted a kind of fleeting spiritual vision, a glimpse of temporarily Earthbound heavenly creatures, using Hussain's music (a program note speaks of this kind of Indian music as "an imitation of the music in heaven") and an excerpt from a Rabindranath Tagore poem that begins "There is a stranger going to and fro in this world of ours."
King's close collaboration with his composers is evident in his choreography: Here, dancers catch lilts and tones as easily as surfers catch waves, rising up and over crescendos. Taylor, dancing his first season with the company after his tenure at Dance Theater of Harlem, opened the second section of Foreigner ("Silence") with steely precision, landing a triple tour and traveling crisply downstage, while Marina Hotchkiss, Melanie Henderson, and former company apprentice Lauren Porter danced a languid variation behind him as if stirred by a warm breeze. Hussain's whooshing wind sounds and chimes, accompanying a low-level hum (a tuning fork?), heightened the ethereal effect, and King closed the variation with the indelible impression of the women forming a triptych around a single glowing spotlight in the dark.
Ferla, a 1985 Prix de Lausanne winner and Swiss import from Bejart's company, made a dynamic impression as he knifed through the rapid jumps and attitude turns of "Faith," and the audience broke into wild applause as his solo morphed into a powerhouse virtuoso display by all of King's men (despite lagging behind the company's men at times, Ferla obviously possesses the kind of muscularity and speed that King's choreography demands). Later, Taylor and Ferla barreled across downstage center, windmilling their arms, and reappeared as Taylor tossed off rippling shimmies and Ferla nailed Hussain's barrage of fast syncopated counts. Foreigner ended with an abrupt change in tempo in "Mother" as a mother and child arranged in a traditional pieta pose slid into a push-pull duet, but the piece was rescued from the realm of the ordinary by Hotchkiss' fluttering, nervous gestures and the ending, a quietly divine tableau under falling snow.