By Samuel L. Leiter . . . 

A classic night at Shakespeare in Central Park. Warm, slightly muggy weather? Check. A helicopter or two overhead? Check. A raccoon making an unexpected entrance? Not this night. A so-so revival of a Shakespearean warhorse? Check. The play in question? Richard III, which, even with stunt casting and directorial mushiness, has never been more a play for our times. The production kicks off the 60th anniversary of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park at the Delacorte Theater; I’m proud to announce I was there when it started (the theater’s designer, Eldon Elder, was my professor).

Director Robert O’Hara’s two-hour-and-45-minute production features Danai Gurira as Richard. A striking actress best known for TV’s “The Walking Dead” and such movies as Black Panther, she plays the famously wicked antihero as a man. (Gurira is also a noted playwright, as per her Tony-nominated Eclipsed.) Richard, of course, is traditionally portrayed with some kind of physical deformity in keeping with several lines in which he self-deprecatingly describes himself. Ms. Gurira, imposing in black tights and black and gold doublet, looks more like a manly Hamlet, in fact, than the actor playing that role nearby on Park Avenue. However, she eschews the prosthetics and props used by previous Richards to give them hunchbacks, twisted spines, shortened limbs, or whatever. This, you see, is to be a Richard who is internally, not externally, deformed, ignoring the fact that such has always been Richard’s character. 

Ali Stroker, Michael Potts, Danai Gurira, Sanjit De Silva, and Xavier Pacheco

On the other hand, almost as if to emphasize Richard’s traditional dependence on being somehow physically irregular, just last month Arthur Hughes gained headlines for becoming the first actually disabled British actor to play the role, and with the Royal Shakespeare Company, no less. It should be added that Ms. Gurira’s being Black and female in a role historically associated with being white and male is, apparently, not meant to signal anything different from the norm.

But, given the rest of the nontraditional casting, it likely would have been considered insensitive for the enabled Ms. Gurira to go the usual disabled route. After all, the Duchess of York is played by Deaf actress Monique Holt; Rivers and other “ensemble” roles are handled by a little person, Matthew August Jeffers; Edward IV and Richmond are covered by an actor with cerebral palsy, Gregg Mozgala; and, among others, Lady Anne is taken by wheelchair-bound Ali Stroker. Moreover, many scenes are presented, at least partly, in American Sign Language (ASL), often, but not always, with a speaking actor saying the signed lines. In fact, so many principal characters seem versed in signing it appears as if medieval English people learned it as a second language.

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers

Otherwise, O’Hara’s production has a relatively conventional period look, captured in Dede Ayite’s medieval-leaning costumes, with modern touches added, like the glittery sneakers worn by the young Prince of Wales and Duke of York (Wyatt Cirbus and Skyler Gallun at the performance I saw). A series of huge, Gothic arches, designed by Myung Hee Chō, placed on a turntable, create various suitable backgrounds, especially as dramatically lit by Alex Jainchill. The doomsday atmosphere is further deepened by the sound design and music of Elisheba Ittoop. 

Still, the play only fitfully takes hold, despite the proximity of its political theme to contemporary issues. The program note by the Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, declares that Richard is “the first ruler in modern drama who uses an utter lack of shame to come to power. In that way, sadly, he is an all too contemporary figure,” words that exactly matched my feelings before arriving at the theater. I can think of no other Shakespeare play in which an ambitious leader, in his rude, ruthless, and relentless climb up the political ladder, so closely matches the behavior of a ruler described by the Times on July 8, 2022 in these words: “Over the years, he has routinely been described as mendacious, irresponsible, reckless and lacking any coherent philosophy other than wanting to seize and hold on to power.” Yes, Boris Johnson. You were thinking perhaps of someone else? 

The company of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III

One of the few fun ways to get through this Richard III is not only to see the title figure as the politician you love to hate, but to try identifying his/her enablers with contemporary foils. Thinking in American terms, for example, feel free to pin donkey tails labeled Pence, Giuliani, Meadows, Jordan, etc., on folks like Buckingham, Hastings, Catesby, and Ratcliffe (the latter two made a single character here).

Richard’s crowd-pleasing antics—many of his lines are spoken directly to the audience—almost beg to be played as if to a rowdy rally crowd, and his ultimate decline as his supporters begin to lose faith in him seems ripe for theatrical reflection. The conflict between the Yorks and the Lancasters has never seemed so much like that between the Democrats (Labour) and the Republicans (Conservative), with the realm torn in half by it. But, apart from a moment here and there (as when Richard demonstrates his piety by holding up a Bible), little of this comes across.

Sharon Washington and Sanjit De Silva

The script has been liberally edited, not always to the play’s advantage, but this has been true of numerous revivals of a text whose provenance as it exists in its Folio and Quarto versions has many problems. For a small example, if you’re expecting the play to begin with “Now is the winter of our discontent,” be prepared for a shocker when instead it commences with Richard brutally stabbing Henry VI to death and reciting, “What, will the aspiring blood of Lancaster sink in the ground?” from Henry VI, Part 3. Even Laurence Olivier’s famous film version takes great liberties, like borrowing from Colley Cibber’s 18th-century adaptation.

I admit to being a purist when it comes to men playing women or women playing men in leading Shakespeare roles, although the latter is more common because of the relative dearth of great roles in the canon for actresses. If such casting must be done, then Ms. Gurira, with her athletic bearing, is an appropriate choice. She has the swagger, the attitude, the sly humor. She also has a strong voice; however, it’s a female voice and, when she gets worked up, as she often does, its shrillness defeats all attempts at verisimilitude. Her most truthful, as opposed to grandiose, scenes are her quietest, especially toward the end, but that’s also when O’Hara’s pacing, instead of moving rapidly toward a bang-bang conclusion, creeps there like a wounded centipede.

Daniel J. Watts and Danai Gurira

The acting ranges across the quality spectrum; Sanjit De Silva’s does well as Buckingham and Sharon Washington gained applause after her big speech as Queen Margaret, although its being staged more as a set piece than an integrated dramatic action is a drawback. Some of the most famous scenes, though, fail utterly, most conspicuously the seduction by Richard of Lady Anne, played with an absolute lack of subtlety or nuance by both the shouting Ms. Gurira and the shouting back Ms. Stroker, making Anne’s submission totally incomprehensible. And the big battle at the end (staged by Teniece Divya Johnson and Jeremy Sample), when Richard cries out for a horse, shows only Richard and Catesby Ratcliff (a conflation of two roles, played by Daniel J. Watts) killing a group of half a dozen men and then, as the stage revolves, fighting those same, newly arisen, men again.

Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s earliest, has a complex plot with multiple characters, many of whom the hero kills or has killed. Even though its story is partly fictional (he wasn’t actually responsible for all those deaths), it’s an excellent encapsulation of political ambition run amuck. And, there being no better time than now to make that clear, it’s a shame that this production drops the ball, offering an exercise in artistic diversity when what’s needed is an expose of political perversity. 

Richard III. Through July 17 at the Delacorte Theater in  Central Park (Enter from Central Park West at West 81st Street). 

Photos: Joan Marcus