July 5, 2015

Hell’s Black Intelligencer Storms the Valley

Benjamin Curns plays Richard III at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

If you’re looking for really good theatre, visit the historic and architecturally charming town of Staunton, VA and see Richard III, part of The American Shakespeare Center’s (ASC) 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season at Blackfriars Playhouse.

Founded in 1988 by Shakespeare scholar Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen and his former student Jim Warren, the company was originally a professional traveling troupe known as Shenandoah Shakespeare Express.  In 1999 it moved to Staunton and renamed itself Shenandoah Shakespeare.  To better reflect its comprehensive Shakespeare campus and its vision of theatre as civic engagement, the company changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center in 2005.  ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse opened in September 2001; it is the world’s only re-creation of Shakespeare’s indoor theatre, which was the first indoor theatre in the English-speaking world.

The Center mounts plays year round, with productions by a resident Actors Equity troupe and a touring troupe, and it runs a year-round lab for students and scholars. The Center also maintains a unique graduate program in partnership with Mary Baldwin College where directors, actors, teachers and dramaturgs can study early modern drama and earn a hybrid Master of Literature/Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in Performance.  It also has teacher seminars, a summer camp for high-school students, and a summer program for middle school students.  Two Center advisory board members of international renown include Dame Judith Dench and Zoë Wanamaker.

ASC is also planning to build a re-creation of Shakespeare’s second Globe Theatre a short distance from the Blackfriars Playhouse.

Blackfriars’ lobby is surprisingly small so when you enter the theater, you’re taken aback by its size and enveloping depth.  It immediately embraces you and reminds you of  home.

During the Actors’ Renaissance Season, the actors mount five different productions which they themselves direct, gathering their own costumes and props, each actor playing several roles in different plays, with little time to rehearse before the productions open.  This year one of those plays is Richard III, which isn’t hard to follow if you bone up on the English monarchy.  The devilish intertwining of quick, back-and-forth dialogue might get confusing, especially when other characters attempt to outwit Richard, Duke of Gloucester, played by Benjamin Curns*.

The Blackfriars stage is an actor in every play. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

If you haven’t read the script, the other problem might be keeping track of who’s playing whom, for with the exception of Curns, the actors handle several roles.

The play takes place during the civil war between the royal families of York and Lancaster, otherwise known as The War of The Roses.  Richard, the bitter, disfigured malcontent, is a member of the House of York.  Much has been written concerning Richard’s imagined physical handicaps and grotesque features, a Shakespearean device for staying in favour with the Tudors who succeeded the House of York.  Even so, Shakespeare lays it on thick when describing Richard, so thick that one wonders if there wasn’t a deeper motive for rendering him so deformed of character and physique.

Curns plays the hideous Richard with a surprisingly light-hearted touch, but his malevolence is soon revealed when he woos Anne Neville, Henry VI’s daughter-in-law.  Curns’s sensuality was stunningly powerful in this scene.  All the cavalier jocularity is gone. The true Richard, the one who can slither to and fro from truth to lies with total ease, is revealed.  His contemptuous flattery and sinister ruses dupe Anne and all who come in contact with him.  Impressive speeches come from this ‘lump of foul deformity,’ and he knows it, and revels in it. He’s a real rat bastard.

But this is only the beginning of Richard’s path to the throne, now occupied by his brother Edward.  Other obstacles need to be cleared.  He needs to solidify his claim upon the crown, so without a thought he has his other brother, poor, trusting George, Duke of Clarence, liquidated.  Other noblemen meet the same fate.

“We are not safe,” says Richard earlier.  Indeed not.

Everyone at court fears or should fear Richard, most of all, Queen Elizabeth, who by now is a widow.  Edward has unexpectedly died leaving behind two young princes, the heir and heir apparent.  Richard absconds with the princes and has his two nephews thrown into the tower under false pretense.  Richard then has himself crowned king and they are never seen again.

Minimalism in the use of props is one of ASC’s trademarks, so when the murderer in Shakespeare’s Richard comes out holding a solitary stick of red candy, previously seen in the hands of the eldest prince, the audience gets it.

There is much debate over what really happened to Richard’s nephews. Shakespeare lays the blame at Richard’s feet.  Staunch Ricardians maintain that Richard was framed and unjustly blamed.  Even the jurors, at The Trial of King Richard The Third, a modern trial by jury broadcast in 1984 at the Old Bailey on the 500th anniversary of Richard’s death, passed historical judgement upon Richard and declared him innocent.

Whether he was guilty or not, Shakespeare pegs Richard as the culprit.  The crime is so horrendous that Richard finds few allies and many enemies.  The forces mounting against him climax in his last attempt to retain his crown. On the eve of this battle at Bosworth Field, Richard halfheartedly prepares for his role in this, his final showdown. 

In his sleep, Richard’s past comes back to haunt him.  He is startled out of a foreboding dream and fears he will not be victorious against the Earl of Richmond’s forces at Bosworth.  Richard tries to worm his way out of his somewhat belatedly developed conscience that “hath a thousand several tongues,” every one of which condemns him for a villain and in his despair, he laments that no one loves him.  Poor Richard.

The play makes a quick end of it once Richard is killed at Bosworth.  Curn’s stage presence is so powerful that it came as a pleasant surprise when Gregory Jon Phelps who plays the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor, capably established his own dominance as the new power in charge.  Between Phelps’ physique, which is somewhat smaller than Curns’, and Curns’ utter possession of the stage, it seemed unlikely that Phelps was sufficiently charged to command respect appropriate to his new role, but with heaving chest, determined countenance and firm stance, he made the audience forget the boar’s corpse lying on the stage and set its eyes firmly upon the new king in town.  It was good theatre.

Sarah Fallon plays Margaret in Richard III. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Another powerful performance was Sarah Fallon’s portrayal of Margaret, King Henry VI’s widow.  Margaret is one of many women gripped and hardened by misfortune at Richard’s hand.  Fallon oozes contemptuous hate for Richard and her misery pours from deep within her soul.

René Thornton Jr.* as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s cousin, proves to be as good a plotter as Richard, and his words and deeds add to our understanding of how quickly fortunes change and how intriguingly difficult life at court could prove.  Thornton was also effective in pulling the audience into the action, making them accomplices in the world of the play.

The stylized costumes represented no particular period but were consistently themed and effective with two exceptions.  Hasting’s modern street clothes were severely patterned and out of sync with the overall effect, and the Duchess of York’s hat was so evocative of the 1930s that attention was drawn to it rather than her dialogue.

Sir James Tyrrel also wore modern attire.  His costume worked, but primarily because of John Harrell’s confident swagger, which exuded an anticipatory delight in the knowledge that he would be chosen to murder the two princes.

Throughout, audience members were thrust forward in their seats awaiting each new word and turn of phrase.  The fight scene was fluid, well choreographed, and exciting, and it was fun to hear audience members gasp as the plot thickened.

So what are the takeaways from Richard III?  The fact that nothing changes save the times in which we live, the players who ascend to power, influence and riches, and the ephemeral nature of time that spares no one.  All those themes are as good today as they were then and will ever be.

The ASC is right to be proud of its significant role in the continuing evolution of the works of poet and playwright William Shakespeare.  Richard III was a visual and sensual treat and the beauty of this play’s lyrical poetry partnered well with the warm embrace of Virginia Oak that is Blackfriars Playhouse.

Richard III runs through April 1, 2012 and also stars Miriam Donald, Allison Glenzer*, John Harrell, Chris Johnston, Daniel Kennedy, Aidan O’Reilly, Brandi Rhome, and Jeremy West.


*Member of Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

The ASC Actor’s Renaissance Season also includes Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding, Much Ado about Nothing, A Mad World, My Masters, and Dido, Queen of Carthage.

(Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren were two of 10 recipients of the 2008 Governors Arts Award.  Gov. Timothy M. Kaine presented the awards to Cohen and Warren at a ceremony at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on Sept. 17, 2008. The Governor’s Arts Awards are sponsored by Virginians for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.)

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About Elizabeth Simmons

Elizabeth Simmons lives in Harrisonburg, VA. She loves music, poetry, homegrown flowers and vegetables, real history, and good design.

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