Richard III

“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.

There was controversy around this show before it even opened, with word of the "gruesome" deaths it contained getting around. BYU even put this notice on its publicity posters: "'Richard III' is an inherently dark, violent journey into the depths of human pride and ambition. This production is for mature audiences. Please, no children under 12." It was the first time I knew of that such precautions had been taken.

Naturally, some people were bothered, too. The ushers reported several audience members walking out each night. One of them allegedly commented on the way out that the play was "too PG-13 when it could have been PG"; another sniffed, "I liked Shakespeare's version better." (One presumes she means the one that was an hour longer and more confusing.)

I don't know what people were expecting. The bright and sunny "Richard III"? The one that's the feel-good hit of the summer?

Anyway, this was a hard show to review because I had so many friends in it. I had taken care not to talk too much beforehand about specific aspects of the show, as I didn't want my opinions of them to be colored. It also wouldn't have been fair if some part of the play had been unclear in performance but had been illuminated for me by a cast member: Regular audience members wouldn't have that luxury, after all, and the review needed to reflect the average person's experience.

So when it was posted at the Daily Herald's Web site and received the criticisms I'm about to quote, it was troubling. The Herald allows anonymous comments to be posted, and we got this one shortly after it appeared online:

I don't know what night Eric saw the show, or if Eric was even talking about the same BYU production of Richard III that I just saw. Eric was extremely keen to observe Ruth's brilliant costume designs, but beyond that he must have fallen asleep and watched some mid-winter night's dream. C. Bell not only couldn't deliver his lines with any sense of meaning, he had no command of the stage. The audience only cared that he died because it meant that they could finally leave the theatre. His scene with B. Baird was like watching a vaccuum on stage. The wonderful Shakespearian prose was deliverd poorly. J Selim, Jesse, and B. Sansom did justice to their parts, but only shine when compared to such a pathetic and lackluster cast. While I know that Mr. Snider has a few friends in the cast and may feel some loyalty to them, I held his journalistic integrety higher than that. Eric, you either saw a different show or just wanted to help out your friends. Richard was a wonderful show to watch as long as none of the actors decided to talk or move. Brilliant technically, horrible performances.

I have been in many plays at BYU and seen many plays at BYU, this is one of BYU's worst productions, and with the exception of Ruth's wonderful costumes, certainly one to be missed.

There was immediate discussion: Who was this person? It was obviously a theater person, which means many cast members would know him or her. The only people he cited by name were Ruth Geilman and Jesse Harward; the rest were initials and last names. (It should be noted, too, that Ben Sansom played a very minor character: Why single him out as being really good? He was fine and all, but weren't there others with larger parts who could be mentioned to make this person's point better?)

It all seemed very suspicious, and was troubling to me because I had been so careful NOT to be biased. I posted this reply:

"Eric, you either saw a different show or just wanted to help out your friends."

Those are the only two choices? What about, "Eric, we apparently disagreed."

It was a very hard show for me to review, because I do have friends in the cast. But ask any of them: I haven't been afraid to rip them, when necessary, in the past. I reviewed this show positively because I thought it was a very good show, end of story.

To which the person responded thus, still anonymously (well, with the name "Student Theater Patron":

"apparently dissageed"? I didn't include that as a feasable option, because there is no way the Richard I saw was as good as you claimed in your review. I have seen good shows at BYU, I have seen average shows at BYU, and I have seen bad shows at BYU-- Richard was one of the worst.

I generally respect your journalistic opinion, even having seen you act..if that is what they might call it... but I think, despite your best efforts, your opinion of Richard was tainted. It is a poorly cast, poorly acted show, with only the technical splendor redeeming it to any level of watchability. BYU can do better and has done better.

As a side note,I apologize for the jab at your acting, [um, then why didn't you just go back and delete it and save yourself the apology?] I really apreciate your support of the arts as a participant, patron and critic. I strongly disagree with this review, [I thought "disagreeing" wasn't one of the options...] but still want to let you know that while very wrong in this case, I will continue to read what you write and congratulate you on all the success you have achieved so far, it is well deserved. You are very talented... but still, very wrong.

Unimpressed with the half-heartedly back-pedaling and continued anonymity, I gave this reply, with the subject line, "Then identify yourself, you coward." You will notice my now-public disdain for the Herald's policy of allowing (even encouraging) anonymous posts:

If you really do have any respect for my writing, or even for yourself -- or if you expect anyone to take your opinions seriously -- then you should identify yourself. Stop hiding behind this Web site's damnable policy of letting people remain anonymous, and say who you are. Otherwise, people will have no regard for what you say, positive or negative.

By now others were replying, too. First came Lisa Valentine Clark, a good friend and the wife of Christopher Clark, who was a cast member:

Regarding the comment from "Student Theater Patron" written 20 March, I can't help but sense a little "sour grapes" in between the lines. First of all, can anyone really take a critical comment seriously when the author doesn't have the courage, or honesty, to include his/her name? Please. And, secondly, could the reason he/she left out his/her name be because said person tried out and was denyed a spot in the cast? Just natural speculation.

While I wholeheartedly disagree with the nameless critic, I most particularly disagree with his claim that the cast was a "pathetic and lacluster" one. C. Bell and B. Baird delievered their prose with intelligence and passion. They spoke with presence and confidence and commanded the audience to their feet in applause when they stopped. David Morgan's set, costumes, and concept was brilliant. But it was the actors who brought Shakespeare's dark play to a moral highlight.

On another note, as a good friend of Eric D. Snider, I can most confidently state that he did not give Richard III, or any review for that matter, out of a sense of loyalty to his friends. The man has integrity and he knows how to do his job. I don't think that's so hard to believe.

I have seen many plays at BYU and this is one of BYU's best productions, certainly one not to be missed. I'll put my name on it.

Lisa Valentine Clark

Then came one of the most glorious bits of prose I've ever seen, from cast member Allison Belnap (who signed her name, too). I have put in bold type the best part.

First, as I am a member of the cast, I want to state unequivocally that I am not writing purely in defense of Richard III, nor will I concede that it is nearly as miserable as you attempt to make it seem. I stand by our work knowing that we have invested long hours in and out of rehearsal in the attempt to reveal these complex characters and relationships. What most disturbs me about your comments is not your rather unfounded opinion of the end result, rather it is that while you conveniently rest under the comfortable veil of anonymity, you are most certainly facing many cast members on a day to day basis and may even have the gall to congratulate them on a job which truly is well done. Grow up. Lisa V. Clark is right on--your writing reeks of sour grapes. True critics own their work. Get a sack, put some balls in it, and sign your name.

So there! A few others also posted comments of general support for the review and/or disagreeing with the idea that I had been biased. (One even pointed out specific times when I'd slammed friends.) I don't know who the anonymous instigator was, but if he or she read the reactions, I suspect he or she felt a little sheepish about it all.