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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Folger's 'Richard III' is a haunting thriller

King Richard III and Queen Anne in stained glass in Cardiff Castle, Wales, U.K./Wikimedia Commons and VeteranMP

On February 4, 2013, British scientists confirmed the bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England six months earlier were indeed the remains of the hated king, Richard III (1452-1485), just as the rumors spoke for 500 years.  And the debate continues on where to put them.

But now on stage with remarkable prescience, the Folger Theatre brings the man to life in William Shakespeare's Richard III. 

Richard is a serial murderer in the play whom the playwright charges rightly or wrongly with 13 deaths.  Maybe more.

For the first time the theatre has brought its stage to the people who surround the production without walls and who become members of the cast.  And I loved, loved, loved the production.

Splash!  Slash!  Cut and strangle!  Come one, come all for gory witness in England:

Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

With a haunting set, the human beast perches on a railing and speaks to the audience, giving hints of what awaits.  After all,

Now is the winter of our discontent

The play takes off, and action never lets up.(In the performance I attended, students watched intently, hanging from the railings in the balcony.)

It is difficult not to fall prey to Richard, skillfully acted by Drew Cortese in a strong and forceful presentation.  Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) is unable to resist the power and hypnosis of the man who would be king,  whom you never doubt is every bit as evil as he portends.  If it's sympathy he seeks, he finds it not in audience abundance.

Drew Cortese is Richard in Richard III at the Folger Theatre/photo by Jeff Malet

If ever there was a worse man, name him.

Like Anne, we are supposed to be duped and magnetized by the unbelievable, but that possibility sent shudders up and down my spine, and I never felt the least affinity nor warmth towards the serpent with the hiccup.

And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

Astonishing is Lady Anne's metamorphosis and transformation in minutes from a woman of hate for the man who murdered her husband and father-in-law, to one seduced in the same scene by the killer who soothes her with words to court her ego.

Was ever woman in this humour woo'd?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I'll have her; but I will not keep her long.

Queen Elizabeth suffers the worst fate imaginable, the murders of her children:

So wise, so young, they say, do never live long.

Remy Brettell (left) is the Duke of York and his brother, Holden Brettell, the Prince of Wales in Richard III at the Folger Theatre/photo by Theresa Wood

She shouts her indignity and spews hate upon the murderer while simultaneously removing some of her clothing and joining the fray of those be smitten by him.  Naturally (?), she plants a big smacker on his mouth. 

Et tu, Elizabeth? 

Julia Motyka is Queen Elizabeth in Richard III at the Folger Theatre/photo by Theresa Wood

We can feel the rage and wrath of Queen Mad Margaret who nails the killer from the get-go in stunning deliveries whenever she appears:

Cancel his bond of life, dear God, I prey,
That I may live to say, The dog is dead!

Next up: The taking of Richard's niece, Princess Elizabeth, the queen's daughter, for she represents a certain path to the kingdom's glory and is a means to the end.

Intermittent chants, a howling dog and sounds from a bell, organ, and percussion increase the mood of death and angst (Eric Shimelonis) while, one by one, the hunted enter the pits, death's trap doors, n'er more to be seen again, except later in the hither light when their ghostly bodies are illuminated by green lights from below.

Was Richard's deformity the root cause of his evil, or simply an excuse, a crutch, used to beguile traumatized victims on his way to the crown at any cost? 

The Folger's balcony becomes an effective prop used by Richard's henchmen who call down to him, awaiting  direction on the next victim to seize.

Throughout the drama, Jim Hunter's lighting adds a atmosphere of dark and death to ghastly design for a dungeon's pit. Sunglasses are never necessary (although worn by a henchman) in this production also billed as a comedy (?), for there is no daylight, only darkness.

The costuming contrast (Mariah Hale) is at first vexing since different eras are represented by male and female characters, but the males' modern-day garb sheds light on the timelessness of the script.  All the men in black wear neckties, leather pants and coats, chains, and nose rings, like hoodlums or singers in a London band, whereas the women are dressed in Victorian  apparel with standout jewelry. 

Richard was only king for two years (1483-1485) until he was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the last king to die in battle. 

A horse!  a horse!  my kingdom for a horse!

Go and see what effect the brute has on you.  Beware of his charms and gird yourself with mental sword to safeguard the theft of your being with sweet words of deceit. 
 
And upon closing, look center for bone-chilling reminders of  what's left of the dragon monster, the python who lingers amidst us all.  Beware, saints who enter here.

Shakespeare wrote Richard III around 1592 and since then, many actors have portrayed the assassin, including John Wilkes Booth.

What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I and I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly! What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good
That I myself have done unto myself?
O, no! Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself.
I am a villain. Yet I lie. I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter:
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree;
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree;
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng to the bar, crying all, “Guilty! guilty!”
I shall despair. There is no creature loves me,
And if I die no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself?

Other members of the cast and crew:  Jenna Berk, Andrew Criss, Daniel Flint, Sean Fri, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Nanna Ingvarsson, Paul Morella, Howard W. Overshown, Michael Sharon, Richard Sheridan Willis, Tony Cisek, scenic designer, Casey Dean Kaleba, fight director, Michele Osherow, resident dramaturg, Daryl Eisenberg, casting, Che Wernsman, production stage manager, Keri Schultz, assistant stage manager, Janet Alexander Griffin, artistic producer, Beth Emelson, assistant artistic producer. Daniel Polk, general manager, and Charles Flye, production manager.

What:  Richard III

When:  Now extended through March 16 , 2014

Where:  Folger Theatre

Tickets: $25 - $72

Metro station:  Capitol South or Union Station

For more information:  202.544.7077 or 202.544.4600

Special Richard events:


Pre-Show Talk Wednesday, February 12, 6:30 p.m.
A scholarly discussion of the play with Folger Director Michael Witmore. Includes light fare reception. Click
here for information and to purchase tickets.

Post-Show Talk with Cast  Thursday, February 20
Following the 7:30 p.m. performance

Folger Friday
Friday, February 21 at 6 p.m.
Poets Sarah Browning and Brian Gilmore respond to the play with original works. Browning is the executive director of Split This Rock and Gilmore is a public interest lawyer and professor. No charge.


Folger Friday
Friday, February 28 at 6 p.m.
Mimi Yiu, a scholar at Georgetown University, discusses early modern architecture in the context of the Folger's production of Richard III.  No charge.


Open-Captioned  Sunday, March 2, 2 p.m.
Call the box office at 202.544.7077 for details


Forsooth, Helen Hayes Nominations:

Outstanding Resident Play

Outstanding Director, Resident Play:  Robert Richmond

Robert Prosky Award for Outstanding Lead Actor, Resident Play: Drew Cortese

Outstanding Supporting Actress, Resident Play:  Julia Motyka

Outstanding Lighting Design, Resident Production:  Jim Hunter

Outstanding Sound Design, Resident Production:  Eric Shimelonis 


For a listing and reviews of other area performances, click here for DC Metro Theater Arts.

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