by JK Clarke
One doesn’t expect much from free outdoor summer Shakespeare productions (aside from The Public’s professional Shakespeare in the Park, of course). The focus is generally not on performance or even content, but rather atmosphere and “culture.” Generally it’s hard to hear, budgets are minimal, the number of performances is limited (so it’s hard for the cast to get into a groove), and the audience tends to be, for a variety of reasons, distracted. Which makes Smith Street Stage’s superb production of the complex, speech-heavy and violent Shakespeare classic Richard III all the more astonishing. Tomorrow night (Saturday, June 25) is the last night of the run, so change your plans and go catch it.
Although a full-length (often three and a half hour) production of Richard III has storyline tentacles that reach off in several directions, the core story, and the focus of this elegantly-trimmed (by director Jonathan Hopkins), nearly two hour version is of an outcast, sociopathic member of the royal family, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who has eyes only for England’s crown and will stop at nothing to get it. In one of the more famous of all Shakespeare’s speeches, Richard opens the play hissing to the audience, “Now, tis the winter of our discontent . . .” and proceeds to lay out his vengeful plan of ascension, confessing his willingness to step on anyone in his way: “Plots I have laid, inductions dangerous,/ By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams . . .” He then proceeds to plow through, by murder and treachery, anyone standing in his way until he has the crown on his head.
The Richard of this modern-era production in which the characters wear business suits and contemporary clothing, Michael Hanson is delightfully devious, with a countenance as rubbery and transmutable as comic actor Jim Carrey’s, sliding from bemusement into an exaggerated evil sneer with the slightest movement. Playing the loathed, disabled Richard as having a slight limp and unusable, tucked-under left arm, Hanson smoothly communicates his deviousness with meer glances.
The production is underscored by unexpectedly terrific performances from multiple cast members who demonstrate not mere facility, but command of Shakespeare’s language, such as one might expect on a professional stage.
The women of this performance were especially powerful: Raquel Chavez managed to turn Lady Anne—whom Richard somehow seduces into marriage shortly after he murders her husband—into a more compelling and passionate character than she is often played; Kate Ross’s Cassandra-esque Queen Margaret is equally fiery, adding a touch of pathos as she continually touches her face in a well-designed tic, as she rages at those who betrayed her; and Nowani Rattray, playing Richmond (normally a male character, but here the niece of King Henry VI and eventual King Henry VII) knocks it out of the park with a blistering performance in both final battle (exhilarating fight choreography with swords bigger than one expects to see with an audience so proximate, by Brian Lee Huynh) and her rousing oration to the soldiers (“If you do free your children from the sword, Your children’s children quits it in your age.”).
Director Jonathan Hopkins and the entire Smith Street Stage company are to be commended for this production. The outdoor Shakespeare setting was unlike any I have witnessed and seems almost ideally suited for the Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill neighborhood. There were a remarkable—nay, astonishing—number of very young children (from four to eleven years old) in the audience who were not only perfectly composed throughout, but actively engaged in a play that featured beheadings (discussed, not shown), sexually suggestive situations and war. (As someone who began seeing Shakespeare at the age of six, I was pleased to see so many getting a similar introduction.) Families sat on blankets stage right and left, as actors charged past, mere inches away; helicopters hovered overhead yet somehow the actors, without microphones, were easily heard and understood; and a live percussion section off-stage clanged hanging crowbars for effect.
Strangely, the production can be summed up in a description of the play’s program, which was professionally produced on slick paper with absolutely first rate graphic design, concise summaries of the play, and, in the center piece, a family tree/org chart with character names and actor headshot that perfectly explains who’s who and how they relate to one another in the play. The level of communication and care for the community that comes to see this free play is illustrative of Smith Street Stage’s solid production of Richard III from top to bottom.
Richard III. Performances Wednesdays-Sundays at 7.30 PM, through June 25 at Carroll Park (Smith Street between Carroll and President Streets, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn). www.SmithStreetStage.org
Photos: Chris Montgomery