When it’s not putting on comedies from the point of view of barnyard birds (2014’s The Year of the Rooster), Impact Theatre, my favorite theater company that holds court in the basement of a pizzeria, has been known to give the Bard his due. This time, the small company is tackling Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s best-known history plays, and perhaps also the one with the highest murder toll.
As its title suggests, Richard III chronicles the bloody rise to power of its namesake character. Richard (played with a kind of boyish deviance by Sean Mirkovich) is a true sociopath — despite his disfigured body (he walks with a cane and has a gnarled hand that he keeps pocketed most of the play), he’s highly persuasive. His manipulation and eloquence allow him to usurp the throne and to pick off anyone who might stand in his way, including infants; his own brother, the Duke of Clarence (Kelvyn Mitchell); and his new bride, Lady Anne (Ashley Rose McKenna), whom he woos and screws with the speed and disregard of a Tinder swipe.
Directed by Melissa Hillman and keenly acted by Impact’s diverse cast of thirteen — with special ups to Queen Elizabeth (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) and Buckingham (ShawnJ West) for their powerful performances — Richard III taps into our fascination with power and the abuse thereof (indeed, Impact makes reference to Netflix’s power-hungry House of Cards series), but it does so in a somewhat shallow way. While some claim that it’s Richard’s deformity that makes him want to kill everyone, as a character he mostly seems to be evil for evil’s sake — which is a challenging supposition, and one that’s hard to sustain in meaningful or interesting ways. And though Mirkovich’s Richard did give me a few chills — namely in his heartfelt seduction of Lady Anne, and in one of his final monologues (after a dream in which his victims come back to haunt him) — I wasn’t altogether convinced that he had the sinister panache required to seduce a country. The “hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death” felt fairly constrained in his vileness, more Dennis the Menace than Dexter.
Also, with the play’s minimal props and a near-vacant set design — just a few pieces of black furniture and a wall of portraits to indicate who had been murdered — it was difficult to tell what thematic direction Richard III was trying to take. Many of the characters were dressed as if they were ready to update their LinkedIn profiles, but aside from the starched digs, it was hard to discern the production’s personality. With the punny press release subject line “HE GOT GAME OF THRONE,” as well as Impact’s claim of providing a modern spin on this very old story, I was kind of surprised that the play felt as stale as it did.
This staleness is not aided by the play’s length (almost three hours). By the time Richard proclaimed his most famous utterance in Act V, my thinking was more along the lines of: “A beer! A beer! My kingdom for another beer!” The intermission, which was kept short in order to accommodate the play’s length, was also, frankly, too short. By the time I had visited the privy and gotten my required second beverage, the show was already back in full swing.
Partially, Richard’s one-dimensionality is due to circumstance: He is a somewhat underdeveloped character, something for which he is often criticized. His motivations are not very complex — he just likes power. And a glance back at the history of the time seems to confirm why this was so. Shakespeare was, like many writers the world over, required to court those in power, and during the time of Richard III‘s production, that would have been Queen Elizabeth I, a Tudor. Richard’s villainy and — spoiler for those not versed in Elizabethan history — his demise were necessary to make way for the reign of Henry VII, also a Tudor. So the more wretched Richard comes off, the better the Tudors look, and the more support and moolah they’re likely to throw Shakespeare’s way. One would think that Shakespeare’s Richard would approve of such a move.
But because of Richard’s run-of-the-mill villainy, it’s hard to stay riveted. Die-hard lovers of the Bard’s work may not mind the length or the rote killings, but first-time Shakespeare-goers might want to sit this one out.