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As King Edward lies ill in a hospital, members of the houses of York and Lancaster file chicly into a hospital waiting room, looking more like decadent one percenters than feuding medieval aristocrats.
One person seems out of place, though, Richard of Gloucester, soon to be the titular “Richard III,” (at Northwest Classical through Oct. 13), a scheming, paranoid, ranter, whose inner demons Shakespeare ableistly matches with outward physical differences, including a hunchback, a limp, and a withered arm.
In one of the production’s many striking choices, Richard (a magnificent Grant Turner) is portrayed not as a cool Machievel, but rather a fevered extrovert, who brings chaos to every situation he encounters.
With his entrance to the waiting room, what ought to be a solemn occasion, soon resembles an episode of “Real Housewives.”
Director Barry Kyle’s production teems with such wondrous moments. He eschews the hammy moustache twisting villainy most stagings trade in, for a glamorous world in which Richard is more a participant than an orchestrator.
This, in turn, elevates the surrounding characters from pawns to players, and makes room for several amazing performances.
John San Nicholas, for example, is a knockout as Buckingham, Richard’s main conspirator. In an inspired choice, Kyle has characters speak with accents from different regions, as Dukes in Richard’s time would have come from different parts of England.
San Nicholas, with his East Coast honk and hardened urbanity, feels just right, a kind of a bloodier Rahm Emmanuel.
Melissa Whitney and Brenan Dwyer, as Queen Elizabeth and Lady Anne, respectively, bring a heartbreaking humanity to their parts, as they are convinced against all their reason to succumb to Richard, even while grieving the losses his acts have wrought in their lives.
Kyle uses light and music masterfully in Northwest Classical’s tight quarters. Characters move eerily past audience members at times, to hypnotic sounds; flashlights, or lone footlights, at others, serve as the only illumination, adding a true physical dimension to the play’s dread.
Kyle has a ridiculously accomplished resume that includes stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Swan Theater at Stratford-upon-Avon, and the National Theater in Prague among others, and experience directing Helen Mirren, Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branagh and Jeremy Irons.
His partnership with NWTC is a great coup for Portland Theater, and a treat theater-lovers here should partake in.
Not everything in this production clicks. While the play’s presentation of Richard feels nuanced psychologically, it can be a stretch dramatically, as one wonders how all those around him could be so swayed by an apparently unhinged sociopath.
Likewise, the play’s text, which is usually pared down, here feels unedited, and lengthy.
The play’s most striking scenes occur in the Tower of London, where Richard’s brother Clarence (a fantastic Tom Walton) is held.
Kyle employs a heavy chain, which echoes on the wood floor, in the scenes. When dragged back and forth, it represents the dull burden of captivity. Later, during an attack, it adds to the frenzy of violence.
Possessed of a true magnetism, Walton is a hugely compelling presence, both as Clarence, and the killer James Terrill. One looks forward to seeing him as Edmond in Northwest Classical’s “King Lear” this spring.
Turner’s performance as Richard is wonderful throughout.
Upon Richard’s ascension to the throne, the text calls for him to immediately consider a pair of horrible murders. In Turner’s eyes and body language we see Richard’s motivation. He spits his words out, spewing venom at former confidantes, unable to question himself.
Nothing feels showy or vain. In many ways Turner carries the play, but he never hogs the stage.
An early play, “Richard III” is beloved, if not always well-regarded. This production conveys a depth often missing from lesser, more exploitative takes on the script.
In a rare misstep, Kyle casts women as the play’s two child princes, as though adult actresses are equivalent to prepubescent boys.
Also surprising is the casual sexism littered throughout the play, where to “play the maid’s part” means saying “no” when one means “yes,” and “feminine” is synonymous with weak and ineffectual. It’s perhaps edifying, though, to see that our culture’s “greatest hits” in the realm of misogyny were in common usage centuries ago.
Shakespeare lovers and novices alike who visit the Shoebox for this show will be richly rewarded, as Kyle and his cast bring deep passion to a play not always thought to possess it.
“Richard III” at the Northwest Classical Theater through Oct. 13 http://www.nwctc.org/index.html
Leela Ginelle is a journalist and playwright living in Portland, OR. Please write her at email@example.com. Click on the hyperlink above to read her latest column.