He’s an SOB, But He’s Ours

Richard III is dastardly, but somehow honest nonetheless.

Richard III is a real son of a bitch. Which is one of the less colorful things said of him; in Shakespeare’s eponymous play, the discontented, deformed son of York is called all sorts of things you want to scribble down and use someday: “poisonous bunch-backed toad” and “elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.” Even his own mother doesn’t trust him, and why should she? Over the course of the play which bears his name, he systematically eliminates everyone who stands between him and the throne; marries and then does away with a woman whose husband, father, and father-in-law he has murdered; and then suggests he should solidify his grasp on the throne by marrying his niece.

There are some who believe Shakespeare was overstating the case, and that the real Richard was an attractive and honorable victim of a frame-up. They call themselves the Society of the White Boar (Richard’s standard), and whenever someone stages the play, they write scathing letters and picket the performances.

To which I’m inclined to say, oh, lighten up already. What are the chances most audience members know whom the character is supposed to represent? The age of Elizabeth has passed. We’re not seeing this play to reassure ourselves that Tudor occupation of the throne was just, as did the English of the 17th century. Now it’s just fun. Richard may be a “lump of foul deformity,” but he’s a clever and seductive one, and the pleasure of the play comes from watching the outrageous things he gets away with before that last cry of “My kingdom for a horse.”

He gets away with a lot in the Woman’s Will production now being staged in area parks; in particular, the scene where he tries to seduce the Lady Anne as she sobs over her father-in-law’s body is pretty hot. Although Elissa Dunn’s Anne doesn’t show much of a transition from mourning to curiosity, Emily Jordan’s serpentine Richard is downright sultry as he pushes Anne until she yields, completely done in by his bizarre logic (“I killed thy husband so you could find a better one”).

Now, it’s long. That’s no fault of Woman’s Will; the play as written takes three hours, and the company has done some tightening. But it feels long here more in the first half than in the second, when the staging gets more visually compelling — and Richard gets weirder. All of his shrouded, howling victims show up to haunt his dreams and tell the Earl of Richmond (who would become King Henry VII) that he will win the coming battle in a very nice bit of choreography. Bernadette Quattrone, who has spent the past few years steadily developing a precise and engaging stage presence, gets to take the stage as the virtuous Richmond. And there’s finally, finally some swordplay.

The company makes the point that Richard is not the only miscreant. Following the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s history plays is like watching a Ren Faire soap opera: The characters change sides frequently, often within one play. A woman who was married to a York in one act might be married to his Lancastrian murderer in the next. And at the time in which this play is set, while the wars (internal and external) are technically over, people still have scores to settle. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the prissy Queen Elizabeth (Jenny Debevec, glacial and spotless) and her brothers, or for that matter in Richard’s staunch supporter Buckingham (a slick Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Nobody here is clean. Richard is just the one who glories in his vileness, internal and external, and in that ironic Shakespearean way is the most honest character for it. Even if he is a “bottled spider.”

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