Shakespeare in the Park’s Richard III Fails to Inspire, Even With All Its Groundbreaking Positioning

The company of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The In-Person Theatrical Review: Shakespeare in the Park’s Richard III

By Ross

There is something so joyful and special, generally speaking, going to Central Park on a beautiful summer’s night to see some Shakespeare performed under the stars and against one of the most beautiful backdrops around, the Belvedere Castle. There is also something else in the mix alongside that joy and splendor that is quite beyond the control of The Public Theater which is in charge of the Delacorte Theater. And that is the noise and rattle of the city that never sleeps; New York City, humming and sometimes distracting our attention from the serious business of Shakespeare and his tragic Richard III. Typically it is the odd plane or helicopter flying by, or the very NYC sound of a siren disturbing the night air peace as it flies down a nearby road. But on this particular night in Central Park, the distraction was something quite out of the norm; a pack of wild partiers had found their way into the auditory backdrop of the staging, drawing our attention slightly away from the Shakespearian dream and historic tragedy that was being acted out on that magnificent stage. At first, I think I believed it to be purposeful sounds of a party going on in the rear, a sound effect layering to the scene where Richard III lays out all of the diabolical and murderous plots. An interesting idea, I thought, but soon I realized, once the noisy mob started to group sing pop songs in loud drunken voices, that this was rebellious NYC pulling our attention away from the drama, not a sound effect or a natural disturbance. Not such a great thing. And it did have its way on us the night I saw Richard III.

That being said, it was work to stay focused, and it didn’t help that director Robert O’Hara (Broadway’s Slave Play) somehow missed the mark with his Richard III. His lead, the majestic and powerful Danai Gurira (Broadway’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone), who plays the titular character, Richard, donned a guise with a force to be reconned with; wise and devious, while also being completely captivating and intoxicating. Gurira and O’Hara cast aside the obvious physical deformities of the lead as written, clothing Richard’s naked villainy so well and beautifully that the reasons for the murderous momentum fail to find its undercurrent and its sharp edges beyond just simple power grabs and greed. She’s a charming beautiful monster. True, that might be the worst kind, but it is within the hunchback angle that will result in our corruption and investigation. Richard needs that complex complication to make the character hate the world, but in Gurira’s strong-minded approach, the anger feels mostly abstract and somehow unwarranted. It keeps us at a distance from her motive and the pain of Richard, oversimplifying the crime and causing our interest to fade or to be too easily distracted. And that is one thing that we didn’t need: another distraction.

Ali Stroker and Heather Alicia Simms in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

But on that impressive modernistic set, designed by Myung Hee Cho (Broadway’s for colored girls…), with lighting by Alex Jainchill (Audible’s Long Day’s Journey…) and costuming by Dede Ayite (Broadway’s American Buffalo), that somehow keeps us guessing, a bit lost, and off-centered, a King runs in out of breath and fearful, taking his seat on an overtly pointed throne, only to have the life stabbed out of him by the menacing and powerful Richard. It’s a daring and thrilling beginning, that sets up the dynamic that appearances won’t and don’t represent the inner workings of this tragedy. And then it spins and turns itself around, bringing forth the action without ever really grounding it in a time or a place.

Gurira’s Richard does move with stealth and determination, albeit never really finding the need to put on a show of the hunchback that Shakespeare wrote. And O’Hara, in a strong act of inclusion and insightful determination, casts solid actors with both disabled and abled bodies to surround Richard, furthering the point of hidden complexities. This includes Gregg Mozgala (Public’s Teenage Dick), a well-respected actor with cerebral palsy, as King Edward IV, Richard’s brother, as well as the soon-to-be King Henry VII, aka Richmond, who shows up out of nowhere without much of an explanation. It took me a few beats to figure that one out, and this was just one of the many examples of characters that we are supposed to just know and understand without much lead-in.

There are numerous moments like this inside O’Hara’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. So many, that I started to wonder if I had dozed off here and there, and missed an important introduction or explanation. Maybe I don’t know this play well enough, or maybe many of these characters are from earlier Shakespeare histories that, if I was knowledgable, would explain their rationale, like the wonderfully performed arrival of the ex-Queen Margaret, played passionately, but maybe not wildly enough by the captivating Sharon Washington (Broadway’s The Scottsboro Boys). Flinging insults left, right, and center at almost everyone around her, Queen Margaret certainly made us forget about the party going on over the hill, but it took me the longest time to really understand her relevance.

O’Hara’s court does include several Deaf actors, including Monique Holt (Harlequin’s Man of La Mancha) as Richard’s own mother, who shows her displeasure through her use of sign language, sometimes being vocalized by a male actor (an odd choice, as I might have preferred a female) and sometimes left unspoken for us to just take in the visual, a plot that both adds and detracts from our engagement. Heather Alicia Simms (TFANA’s Fairview) as Queen Elizabeth and Ali Stroker (Broadway’s Oklahoma!) as soon-to-be-wed Anne falter a fair bit, never really finding the conviction of their Shakespearian words, as they, and a few others, force the phrasing out into the night air loudly, but without honesty and carefully backing it up with subtle emotion. Whereas the handsome Daniel J. Watts (Broadway’s Tina) as Radcliffe and the sly Sahjit De Silva’s (NYTW’s An Ordinary Muslim) as Buckingham find their way into the heart of the deception well and true, giving us reason upon reason to be wary of their ways.

Overall, the Public‘s production of Shakespeare’s tragic Richard III never finds its way into the heart and the deep emotional hurt of the matter. Family members don’t connect, and motives don’t dig deep enough. Images and scenarios pass by too quickly without every planting root in any given time or specific place. The play rushes forward through murder after murder without giving us much reason to care, even though we know we should. They all seem disconnected from one another, without allegiance to anyone but themselves. Leaving us as disconnected as they are. The direction made it hard to stay tuned in, especially with that wild drunken party going on somewhere back behind and beyond the stage. Maybe it was up at the castle. I’m not sure, but all I can say is that it sounded like they were having a better time of it under the starry skies than we at the Delacorte were with this mediocre Richard III.

Ali Stroker, Michael Potts, Danai Gurira, Sanjit De Silva, and Xavier Pacheco in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

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