NEW YORK (AP) -- Few productions of "Richard III" end as matter-of-factly as the current Public Theater version, where the actor speaking the closing lines looked out at the audience the other night, dropped his solemn demeanor and said simply: "The End."
It was charmingly low-tech, if the word "charming" can ever be used to describe "Richard III," one of the most frightening characterizations of power gone mad ever written.
You may have had your satisfying fill of Richards for a while if you caught Kevin Spacey's majestically creepy performance early this year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That epic production, courtesy of the Bridge Project, was more than twice as long as this pared-down version, which clocks it at 90 minutes.
But for some of us, one can't have too many Richards, and it's a worthwhile trip to see the spin that Ron Cephas Jones, a veteran actor of both Shakespeare and contemporary theater, gives to the role (and if you remember his frightening Aaron in the Public's "Titus Andronicus," you'll know how unafraid this actor is of sinking to the depths of evil.)
First, a word about the project: This "Richard III," directed by Amanda Denhert, is part of the Public's Mobile Shakespeare Unit, an effort pioneered by the late Joseph Papp in the 1950s to bring Shakespeare to audiences who otherwise might never see his works performed live.
Revived last year, the project has brought this "Richard III" in the last few weeks to places like the Rikers Island prison, an army base in Brooklyn, a homeless shelter and other venues. It returned "home" over the weekend to the Public, where it runs through Aug. 25.
Tickets are only $15, and the production values are accordingly spare. Nine actors play some 20 roles. There are no sets, no makeup, minimal costumes. Waiting for their scenes, actors sit in folding chairs in the audience.
It's refreshing to see the play pared down to its bare essentials, but the approach does have its drawbacks.
For one thing, while the extensive cutting is designed to make the play more accessible, an unintended consequence is that the action actually becomes more confusing sometimes. And when you have actors playing numerous roles, it goes without saying that you need to be very careful to show clearly who's playing whom, and when. There are a couple points where such character changes are murky (Didn't that person die already, you might wonder?)
The acting, though, is excellent, especially the deep-voiced Jones, in a role that makes fine use of his distinctive physique: Tall and rail-thin, he stalks the stage as if ready to pounce at any moment.
In keeping with the mood of the production, Jones' Richard is not nearly as showy as was Spacey's memorably sinister creation. And whereas Spacey went for some laughs — giving us sidelong sneers as if to say, "Can you believe what I just did?" — Jones is deadly serious, as in the scene where, amazingly, Richard succeeds in wooing Lady Anne over the dead body of her husband (killed by Richard, of course.) Spacey exulted a bit, but this Richard is all business. "I'll have her, but I will not keep her long," he says, chillingly.
Richard's business, of course, is killing everyone in his path to the crown, and that killing is illustrated with a simple device: A sheet, upon which a rudimentary family tree is sketched. As characters die off, their names are crossed out in sickening blood-red liquid. It's an effective prop, even if some in the audience — especially those unfamiliar with the plot — may still be left confused as to who's who.
Two of the most fully fleshed-out characters are the unfortunate queens — the banished Margaret of Anjou, played by the skilled Suzanne Bertish, and Elizabeth, whose dignified shock at Richard's devious machinations is beautifully captured by Lynn Hawley. The scene where Richard tries to get Elizabeth to agree to persuade her daughter to marry him, despite the fact that he's wiped out everyone in sight, is one of the very best. Richard promises he will love the daughter "unto her fair life's end."
"But how long fairly shall her sweet life last?" Elizabeth answers bitingly.
Is your summer ready for one more, er, winter of discontent? If so, Jones and company provide a worthy 90-minute lesson in pared-down yet still powerful Shakespeare.
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