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Glenda Frank

''Richard III'' by William Shakespeare.
Directed by Brian Kulick and Michael Cumpsty
at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th St., NYC.
Nov. 13- Dec. 9, 2007. Tues. – Sat. at 8; Sun. at 4 PM.
Tickets: $60-65. 212-352-3101, 866-811-4111

Some Richards glower. Some limp around the stage and sneer. Some simply look dyspeptic. But Michael Cumpsty's King Richard III, the most evil and beloved of all Shakespeare's villain, smiles with unsullied delight. He adores this game of bloody politics. Ticking off the murdered players is his opiate of choice. The blending of this upbeat villainy with some judicious editing makes this "Richard III" at Classic Stage Company, directed jointly by Cumpsty and Brian Kulick, the Artistic Director of CSC, compelling, fresh, and exciting. The almost three hours fly by and the play lingers, a feast. I wonder if this is the version the Bard envisioned. Never before have I seen the murderers of the children played as comic relief, and yet how well it works.

Cumpsty controls the stage. He waves to us as he enters, like an old friend. When he tells us he is deformed – he pauses, looks at us. Later, as the commoners are being brainwashed into demanding Richard be made king, we wave the tiny paper ensigns with a picture of the boar (Richard's crest, distributed to us), knowing his ruthless but still caught up in his momentum. His henchman Lord Buckingham (an excellent Michael Potts) works the aisles, shaking our hands. We are, it would seem, as gullible as Lady Anne (KK Moggie) , who is wooed and won by Richard as she mourns behind the coffin of her father-in-law, whom Richard slew. Richard is the consummate politician with a foolproof campaign strategy – until the ghosts (his superego, his conscience – as you like it) enter and curse him.

Cumpsty is so at comfortable with the Shakespearean line that he makes it sound like contemporary speech even as we wonder – as we once wondered when we first read the play – at the eloquence and economy of the playwright's phrasing. Each character presents a clean emotional drive -- even the few where the performances leave much to be desired. This directorial clarity transforms the scenes into small artefacts, each memorable in itself yet very much part of the easy flow.

Much of this has to do with the staging. Richard greets us all in black, and remains center stage, between brother Clarence who is under arrest and headed toward the Tower (stage right), and brother Edward IV (Philip Goodwin) in the palace (stage left). This triptych of royal blood makes the arrested and reigned brothers equal prey. Clarence (Graham Winton), is very appealing. He keeps his best face forward and his rage at the imprisonment under control so that the horror of his death feels like the loss of a real person, not a plot prop. The second death, of the ailing Edward surrounded by concerned friends and a protective wife who are suspicious of Richard, brings us "the spider" as his mother calls him as a Machiavellian genius. And just so we get the picture, Richard's brothers wear blue (mostly modern costumes by Oana Botez-Ban), and when he disposes of them, he vanquishes color from the stage.

The design team transformed the limited budget of CSC into an asset, and the directors embraced the limitations. The black, minimalist set by Mark Wendland melds economy with inspiration: a table, some chairs, and many large crystal chandeliers. The table is for feasting and Edward's death bed. The eight chandeliers rise and descend in individual groups, creating new rooms and atmosphere (lighting by Brian H. Scott). At times darkly mirrored, the walls and floor intensify the lighting effects or create deep shadows – as for the Tower and night scenes. Mark Bennett, whose atonal score is worth the price of admission, recently composed the music for "The Coast of Utopia," "Henry IV" at Lincoln Center, and "Golda's Balcony."

The tone darkens after the death of the children. The black leather coronation is sardonic. In an earlier act, Roberta Maxwell rendered the vanquished Queen Margaret's curses with clarity and rage, not with the usually incoherent ranting. As she decanted, Richard circled her as though to magically contain her venom and to settle his raw nerves. In later scenes, she is even calmer and angrier, glad to see her prophesy fulfilled while Edward's Queen Elizabeth (Maria Tucci), in her despair of having lost her sons, now courts her. It is a touching scene; we can feel in these small human gestures by women who have lost everything the seeds of Richard's undoing. The dream scene is so straightforward that it achieves a simple majesty as the characters destroyed by Richard visit his bedside with warnings and then visit his opponent Henry, Earl of Richmond (the fine Graham Winton in ironic double-casting), with blessings.

If it hadn't been for the Broadway strike, I would not have had to reschedule and might have skipped this production. It's good to be reminded by productions like "Richard III" CSC that Off-Broadway is still the life blood of New York theatre.


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