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Sinister Ambition 

Thick Description presents a stylish study in evil

Wednesday, Mar 26 2003
King Richard III "Crookback" has Shakespeare to thank for one of the worst reputations in English history. In real life he was an ambitious but not homicidal pretender to the throne with a slight deformity in his shoulder and an unfortunate nickname. In Shakespeare's Richard III, he's a hunchbacked study in evil. The Shakespearean Richard jails or kills his rivals and woos their mourning women. He does everything, as W.H. Auden pointed out, just for the sick challenge of it; he wants his head "round impaled with a glorious crown," not for the glory or the power but because other people don't want him to be king. He needs enemies to know he exists.

Director Tony Kelly has stripped down Shakespeare's grand, shadowy play to a brief, modern-dress one-act with a little jazz on the stereo. L. Peter Callender plays Richard as a Vegas macher, more Sammy Davis Jr. than Dean Martin, who aspires to be Chairman of the Board. He wears an eye patch instead of affecting a hunchback or a withered arm. He also wears a slick three-piece suit and lives in a moderne-looking house with frosted, corrugated glass walls. The whole show gleams with style, and Kelly has stripped it even further by restricting his cast to three actors.

Richard starts the play as Duke of Gloucester, the younger brother of an ailing King Edward IV. He resents the "weak and piping peace" that reigns in England under Edward -- peace is boring to a man like Richard -- and hatches a plot for the throne. He flirts with Lady Anne, widow of a prince Richard has already killed, as she weeps over her father-in-law's coffin, not because he wants her, really, but because wooing a woman grieving for a man you've murdered is such a perverse idea. Then he makes sure that his brother George (Duke of Clarence) dies in jail, and shifts the blame to the king. Edward dies of illness and heartache, and Richard becomes Lord Protector of England, in charge until Edward's sons grow up. Soon enough he's plotting to kill the sons.

Richard maintains an ironic sense of humor throughout his reign of terror; he knows exactly what he's doing. The only pleasure he gets is sticking it to beautiful people. He resents all happy, peace-loving nobles and courtiers because they're beautiful and happy. The best part of Richard 3 is watching Callender's face twitch with derision. His acting style is big and flamboyant, in spite of Kelly's paring-down. He's used to projecting for an outdoor audience at the California Shakespeare Festival, so here, in the smallish Thick House space, we get to see every flicker of his mouth and eyes. He makes even Richard's well-worn lines -- "I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks" and especially "I am not in the vein!" (meaning, not in a generous mood) -- fresh and chilling.

Still, Kelly seems to have directed the whole cast to use more noise and gesture than necessary. Sometimes Callender overreaches, and his co-stars, Selana Allena and Rodrigo Breton, struggle under the burden of so many roles. Allena plays Lady Anne as a kind of imitation English lady -- she finds a lofty accent and haughty mannerisms, but no deep or personal interpretation. Breton is also forced in a few roles; he's much stronger as the ill King Edward, for example, than as George sitting in jail. The uncertain acting is a drag on the play, and even at just 95 minutes the show bogs in the middle.

What saves it is Kelly's sense of style. Whenever Richard meets a setback or scores a quiet, sinister victory in his quest for power, bright lights flash behind the corrugated glass and the sound system plays something by Coltrane or Ellington. These touches combine with Callender's powerful introspection to create a stark, beautifully inward Richard. His haunted, guilty "I am I" monologue near the end is tortured and bleak. "O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me!" he says. "... Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I./ Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:/ Then fly. What, from myself?" and so on.

The famous speech of another anguished Richard, in Shakespeare's Richard II, mentions "sad stories of the death of kings." But the death of Richard III isn't truly sad -- you feel pity, catharsis, relief. Kelly hews Shakespeare down to the bare arc of Richard's sinister ambition, and makes his Richard 3 the simple, sad story of the birth of a king, or the rise of a monster who never should have been in charge.


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