The chance to see a member of the Marvel Universe on stage, rather than on a screen, is admittedly reason enough for many folks to venture into Central Park’s Delacorte Theatre where Danai Gurira (“Black Panther”/ “Avengers: Infinity War”) is trying her hand at playing a villain, the malevolent, murderous Richard III. Yet, whether her mostly superb performance is worth enduring this confusing production is a question that can only be answered individually.
Unsurprisingly, Gurira not only instantly makes you forget that she’s playing a man – and a very bad man at that -- but she handles the Shakespearean speech with complete ease. Most importantly, she perfectly captures the charm and cunning that allow Richard to get away with his dastardly doings, while never shying away from Richard’s dark-hearted motives. Still, she’s not quite the monster one expects.
In large part, that’s because the usually savvy director Robert O’Hara has chosen not to give the actress any sign of Richard’s customary hunchback or any facial deformity, which are the keys to the character’s quest for thirst and power and need for affirmation. If you don’t add that element, there’s no complexity to Richard; he’s nothing more than a B-movie psychopath.
While this omission may not be a dealbreaker for anyone who knows the play, or picks up easily on the work’s complex dialogue, it can lead to massive confusion for the many audience members unfamiliar with the play. And given that the Public Theater has often used Shakespeare in the Park to introduce audiences to the Bard’s work, O’Hara’s directorial choice isn’t merely questionable, it’s essentially unforgivable.
The fact that O’Hara peppers the production with other-abled actors like Tony winner Ali Stroker (as Richard’s vain sister-in-law turned wife Anne) and Gregg Mozgala (who doubles as Richard’s frail brother King Edward as well as Richard’s eventual conqueror, Richmond) does nothing to compensate for this error in judgment. Moreover, making a couple of the characters deaf, most notably Richard’s mother (an affecting Monique Holt), and having them communicate in American Sign Language (in merry olde England) just comes off as performative.
It might help, as well, if Myung Hee Cho’s abstract set had a flow-chart explaining everyone’s relationship to everyone else at the back, instead of a royal flag. You can easily find yourself wondering who all these various lords are (never mind what they want) and which queen belongs to which king. (Shakespeare’s original audiences were likely far more familiar with their country’s own history than we are.)
Worse yet, you barely care about any of them, thanks to various degrees of overacting and underacting. The major exception is the brilliant Sharon Washington as the embittered Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI (Richard’s first homicide victim), who has cursed her successors (notably Heather Alicia Simms’ sassy Queen Elizabeth) and repeatedly rails against Richard. Washington makes every scene she is in riveting, making us sorry that she’s only intermittently on stage.
Oh yes, at the end, Richard is undone because he’s lost his horse – though O’Hara stages that famous scene very badly. Alas, the bigger issue is you’ve probably lost interest in the play’s outcome by the time it occurs. For audiences who truly love the Bard, this summer show will only lead to their discontent.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Maleni Chaitoo, Wyatt Cirbus, Thomas DellaMonica, Sanjit De Silva, Sam Duncan, Thaddeus S. Fitzpatrick, Skyler Gallun, Danai Gurira, Sarah Nina Hayon, Monique Holt, Matthew August Jeffers, Matt Monaco, Gregg Mozgala, Joe Mucciolo, Paul Niebanck, Xavier Pacheco, Marcus Raye Pérez, Grace Porter, Michael Potts, Ariel Shafir, Heather Alicia Simms, N'yomi Stewart, Ali Stroker, Sharon Washington, and Daniel J. Watts
Central Park (81st St & CPW or 79th St & Fifth Av)
New York, NY