‘Richard III’ a seething, sordid saga
By LARRY PARNASS, Staff writer
Thursday, July 3, 2003 -- HADLEY - If someone writes a new play for the set the Hampshire Shakespeare Company is using this summer, it could contain an interesting stage direction.
As it is, the playwright's traffic management in "Richard III" is all-business, with instructions like "Enter Gloucester" and "Exeunt the rest, with the Corpse."
An instruction for this elaborate wooden set, located outdoors at the Hartsbrook School, could read: "Richard approaches from 150 yards, in view the whole way, walking a low grassy path that exaggerates his deformity and trailing a funnel of malignancy."
Once again, yards, fields and a mountain backdrop lend an epic quality to a production that would be stirring if presented in a closet. Though three hours long, "Richard III" rewards its audience all the way through. Helter-skelter battle scenes bracket the tale. In between, this large company, directed by R. Dean Acheson, presents a vivid gallery of people that a tyrant misuses, on his way up.
Richard meets few of them on his way down, for he's sent most to their deaths.
I read over the opening speech of "Richard III" before attending Sunday night's production. On the page, after the familiar "Now is the winter of our discontent," the language retreats into the grain of another age. When Stephen Eldredge delivered these lines as Richard, this world snapped to life.
Any good Shakespeare troupe must pull off that trick. I've never been disappointed, on this score, by Hampshire Shakespeare. While little parts can drift out of sync, this company carries off great archaeological work, brushing off whatever may hide the enduring humanity of these lines.
By sharing his wicked plans - "I am determined to prove a villain" - Richard immediately makes the audience complicit in his treachery.
Eldredge raged well as Richard and allowed this character's flaws to show as well, particularly his tendency to alternate barked-out orders with fogs of confusion. I did not come away understanding why he so desired power, and such a cost to his own relatives, but this may be the hardest thing in this bloody English history to convey.
Eldredge did convince me that he lusted for it. He elected to minimize Richard's deformity, which I think wise, considering that these royal connivers also had to acquit themselves on the battlefield. The actor cemented his emotional connection with the audience early and never let it flag.
As usual, the company surrounded its lead with terrific supporting performances. Lindsay Stone was marvelous as Lady Anne, the widow that Richard woos over the coffin of the man he has just killed, her husband. Churning with disgust for Richard, Stone let her face empty out, past vanity's usual tipping point. Her features twisted with revulsion, helping us feel how horrific his conduct has been.
Because this is at heart a melodrama, the would-be king manages to win her over as his wife. Her pain lingers, though, darkening this grim narrative.
Emily Abrams and Steve Angel presented a tight and comic portrait of two assassins stumbling their way to their target, playing their mission as an Elizabethan "Pulp Fiction." Abrams returned in several other roles. Angel, playing Sir James Tyrell, later showed more pure menace.
Robert Olmsted, Kerry David Strayer, Walter Carroll, Chris Nauroth and Mark Dean all turned in strong performances as men who ran afoul of Richard's schemes. After being dispatched by sword, their memories lived on in the long, red banners raised on halyards on the set. By the end, the scene swam with red as the banners trembled in the night's breeze.
Laura Eden-Patnode gave us a lovely yet fierce Queen Elizabeth, a strong woman who found herself out-maneuvered, until the end, by Richard, a man trusted by no one. I enjoyed also the work of James Kules as Ratcliffe, a Richard ally who appeared to be one of those oafish guys who just likes to fight. Mat Bussler was a squeaky-clean avenger by the name of Richmond who countered Richard's grimy legacy with a decided sparkle.
The night I went, Megan Smithling, the company's dramaturg, took on the role of Queen Margaret, on only seven hours of notice. She was superb.
On Friday, Smithling will speak at 6:30 p.m. about the history of the period covered in the play.
"Richard III" runs Wednesday through Sunday at 7 p.m. until July 13 at the Hartsbrook School, 193 Bay Road in Hadley. Admission is $15, or $10 for students and seniors and $6 for children. Tickets are available at the door or at Amherst Books, Beyond Words Bookshop and the Odyssey Bookshop.