"Richard III," at BYU
by Eric D. Snider
Published on March 23, 2001
"Richard III" is both difficult to follow and entertaining to watch, bolstered by enough brilliance to outweigh the deficiencies that a show with this much over-ambition and grandiosity is bound to have.
The show begins with a devilish voice warning, "Abandon hope, ye who enter here," along with a short video that gets us up to speed on what's been happening in the War of the Roses. The film quickly becomes campy, concluding like a movie preview ("One man ... will stop at nothing ...") with crashing music and block letters that say "Richard III."
Not that it's particularly funny, but campiness -- albeit a pitch-black variety of it -- is a big factor in the show. Shakespeare wrote Richard (Cristian Bell) to be such a hideous villain, an absolutely soulless monster who is an expert liar, manipulator and con-artist, that you can't take him seriously, especially when he speaks directly to the audience to tell us how he really feels about the people he's just glad-handed.
The costumes (by Ruth Geilman) are beautifully outlandish, with an abundance of stunning trains, flourishes and accessories, and a ghost-laden nightmare Richard has late in the show is creepy, but a giddy kind of creepy -- the kind that makes you grin as you shiver.
The murders committed by Richard's henchmen (Jesse Harward and Matthew Herrick) -- which have already inspired controversy at the typically murder-free BYU -- are more over-the-top ridiculous than they are gruesome. They're not bloody. It's a little shocking to see a beheading or a hanging live on stage, but fears that the show is too horrifically violent for civilized folks are exaggerated -- especially when you consider how absurd those assassins are (Harward's silly English accent is the give-away), and how like a USA Network horror flick the show often is.
The role of Richard is a tricky one, but consummate actor Cristian Bell eats the part alive, then nails its hide to the wall. He acts with exuberance, physicality and sheer furious energy, and clearly enjoys every minute of it. Richard needs to be a villain who likes his work, or the audience won't be interested in him. As Bell plays him, not walking so much as lunging, spider-like, across the stage with steely deliberation, one is enthralled.
Richard's goal here in 15th-century England is to become king. Thanks to Richard having killed King Henry VI, his brother Edward (Isaac Walters) now reigns. So the kingdom is in the family, anyway -- but so many people are in the way before Dick gets it. King Edward is fortunately rather infirm and apt to die soon. Then there's their other brother, Clarence (Christopher Clark), whom the assassins dispatch in his bathtub just after a harrowing and poignant confession of past guilt (kudos, Clark, for making your one scene count).
A more delicate matter is King Edward's young boys. To kill two little kids is beyond the pale (particularly when they're your nephews), but they'll have to go before Richard can lay claim to the crown.
Meanwhile, former Queen Margaret (the under-appreciated and brilliant Susan Keller), wife of the murdered Henry VI, is still hanging around the court like a stench, making everyone uncomfortable ("You killed my husband! You killed my son!" etc.) and pronouncing curses right and left. The current queen, Elizabeth (Becky Baird), while at first an adversary to the deposed monarch, is able to relate once her husband and sons have been murdered by the same creature who made Margaret the wretch she is.
Richard uses emotion with Queen Elizabeth, wanting to have her daughter (Cyndi Ball) as his wife, purely for political reasons. That scene -- one of the show's longest -- is a tour de force of electrically charged acting. The statuesque Becky Baird, now playing Elizabeth as a ghastly, balding hag, matches Bell note for note in their tete-a-tete. Seeing either of them play opposite the supporting cast, most of whom are extremely good, is satisfying. Seeing them play opposite each other is mind-blowing.
Not everything in the show works. The dim lighting (whose purpose I do understand) is often so dark as to make actors' faces disappear. The action is sometimes difficult to follow, too, despite the play having been shortened and somewhat simplified; things are particularly slow in the first half, before intermission.
But it's a show that rewards diligent viewing. It's a big show, in every sense, and most of it lives up to the big expectations it sets for itself. In the end, it is rich, evocative and deeply tragic.
Copyright © Eric D. Snider.
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