'Richard III' review — Danai Gurira seizes the stage and the throne

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    July 11, 2022
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    This year's Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III is not, by definition, an immersive show. But in the stands of the Delacorte Theater, we're not invisible spectators, either. You might not realize it until the play's second half, but you, the audience, are tasked with two(!) roles: of the ruthless King Richard's knowing confidantes and his unsuspecting subjects. Lines like "By his face, you know his heart" elicit laughs, since Richard repeatedly cajoles other characters only to deliver us an aside about his plans to murder every threat to his ascent to the British throne.

    But when Richard steps out into the audience and explains away his wrongdoings, we listen, enraptured, and applaud on cue. It's the most clever bit of staging in this nearly 3-hour production, which doesn't shed much new light on the 600-year-old play, but is well designed and provides a worthy talent showcase for its actors.

    Of note is the bewitching Sharon Washington in her few appearances as the prophetic Queen Margaret, and Richard's right-hand men: Daniel J. Watts gets some sharp comic moments as Ratcliffe, and Sanjit de Silva, as Buckingham, performs a masterful, subtle transformation as his loyalty to the king wanes. But the showpiece is Danai Gurira as Richard himself. Director Robert O'Hara's production clearly revolves around her, but even if it didn't, she commands the stage with such swagger that it would — as one would expect from the Tony- and Pulitzer-nominated multi-hyphenate.

    Richard is a villain through and through (the very first thing we see him do, before even speaking a word, is stab a man), but a cunning and deliberately charming one. Speaking Shakespeare's text with pompous affect seldom works, except when Gurira does it, because her character is always putting on a calculated performance. This, too, makes her more cavalier moments of delivery stand out — and they're darkly funny, because Richard is at his most casual when talking about his crimes. A similar moment of physical comedy — when Richard awkwardly leans on Queen Anne's (Ali Stroker) dead husband's body while actively seducing her — is the cherry on top.

    Despite Gurira's indisputable talent, though, the intent behind her casting is unclear. As Richard III was written, his peers look down on him, even before he starts killing people, because of a physical disability. In this production, disability is seamlessly taken into account in the royal court: Queen Anne uses a wheelchair, and most everyone knows some degree of sign language, as Richard's own mother (the Duchess of York, played by Monique Holt) is deaf.

    All this is presented without fanfare (and rightfully so), as does the racially diverse makeup of the court and the fact that Gurira, a female actor, is playing Richard as a man. But if accessibility and inclusion are the norm in this Richard III, then what about Richard is so inherently loathsome to everyone around him? Perhaps it's simply an inherent, internal malice he's always demonstrated, but that's a vague and far less compelling take. One could imagine a Richard III that interrogates racism or sexism, and the breaking point at which being consistently demeaned for one's race or gender, instead of a disability (all types of physical "otherness") drives a person to demonstrate their power by force.

    Some less weighty contemporary details make their way into Richard III, design-wise: namely, Myung Hee Cho's spiky set and Elisheba Ittoop's foreboding sound. (Two pairs of glittery gold sneakers also puzzlingly feature into Dede Ayite's otherwise period-adjacent costume design.) But on the directorial and performance side, this production is a fairly safe, straightforward one. It leaves potential to be desired, but Richard III will satisfy the Shakespeare traditionalists out there.

    Photo credit: Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in Richard III at Shakespeare in the Park. (Photo by Joan Marcus)