For all intents and purposes, "The Tragedy of King Richard III" is not a comedy. It is, however, the final play in Shakespeare’s tetralogy, the Wars of the Roses, that ended a family feud that lasted 63 years. With all due respect for the historically significant conflict Shakespeare dramatized about the houses of York and Lancaster, director Vivienne Benesch’s vision for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey is one that perversely, if also audaciously, circumscribes the impact of this otherwise killer of a play. In light of the concurrent production of "Richard II" at New York’s Classic Stage Company (through Sunday, October 15), in which the title character is notably weak, there is a certain pleasure that comes with following a strong if demented Richard III who manages to manipulate a solid three hours of unrelieved murder and mayhem with a scenery-chewing actor’s trunk full of winks, smirks, and sneers.
"Richard III" is usually perceived as a gripping play about the seductions of a devil incarnate. This version, however, takes great liberties to consider it a black comedy, as perverse a tragic play as you are ever likely to sit through. But I doubt if many of you will be prepared for the vaudeville-like pastiche that propels this evening of villainy and that many will find delicious. Benesch’s ambitious, over-reaching concept is certainly a demonstration of a revisionist’s perspective. Purists may well end up reeling with dismay at an interpretation that pokes fun at most of the play’s duped personae and darker elements. But others will find the approach enlivening, particularly the way some of the actors engage in some old-fashioned vaudeville shtick. Laughter was certainly heard and encouraged in this staging and specifically because of Paul Mullin’s over-the-top performance in the title role.
There are more peculiarly idiosyncratic affectations attached to Mullins’ Richard than you can count. There is the inevitable trace of the grotesque bell-ringer, but Mullins gives a new meaning to Richard’s clowning and clawing his way to the throne. If the role is specifically laced throughout with wry wickedness, Mullins embroiders every action and underlines each line with only the smallest regard for Richard’s seriousness of purpose. Mullins’ constant smirking, sneering, and mugging asides unfortunately grow tiresome. Seizing upon Richard’s physical disabilities, Mullins gets plenty of mileage, however, exploiting his strapped and corseted body and leg braces. You could say that the large red blotch painted on one side of his shaved head is perhaps one adornment too much.
Wouldn’t you know that Richard makes his first appearance climbing out of a coffin, much like Dracula? An otherwise rather comely actor, Mullins will remind some of Max Schrek, who played the vampire Nosferatu in the classic silent film. Given his ghoulish appearance, it remains an historical marvel how many women are seduced by this most heinous and revolting suitor.
It is hard to know if any attempt was made by either the director or Mullins to extract from Shakespeare’s loathsome king yet another corroborating fact by which we may ponder, as historians still do, the true nature of this impulsive human tower of pure venom.
As the Houses of York and Lancaster have been filled by director Benesch with some mighty bizarre production conceits, including some jazzy underscoring, it is a wonder how many competent performances survive. Despite the distractions, standout performances include the heart-breaking despair of Kathleen McNenny and the despairing ravings of Roberta Maxwell, as respectively, the Queens Elizabeth and Margaret.
John Livingstone Rolle’s Lord Hastings, Paul Niebanck’s bespectacled Duke of Buckingham, and Teagle F. Bougere’s Clarence made powerful impressions as did Roxanna Hope, as the ill-fated (who wasn’t?) Lady Anne. Quite startling is Anne’s death, as she pulls a revolver out of her purse, shoots herself, and falls into the open coffin, actually a trap door into which more than one of Richard’s victims falls.
Set designer Murell Horton uses a rake thrust stage. The simple effective decor consists of a line of curtains that are either drawn, pulled, or contoured to suggest a change in location. There is a padded chair upstage that serves as a throne and some contemporary straight back chairs that are used for the gathering of kinsmen and others. Horton, who also designed the costumes, relies on a mixture of eras and eclectic fashion statements, notably 1930s chic for the women except for Maxwell’s colorful rags, trousers and boots that look as if they were pulled from a trunk at the Cirque du Soleil.
As is expected of Shakespeare’s historical plays, they continue to resonate with contemporary political relevance. Who is so blind not to see Richard III’s self-destructive course supported and empowered by those unable to see through his feigned religiosity?
"Richard III," through Sunday, October 8, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey (main stage), 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $28 to $50, with discounted ticket packages available. Call 973-408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org.