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January 30, 2007

This "Richard III's" Real Star

Roy Meachum

Geraint Wyn Davies as Richard III and Claire Lautier as Lady Anne in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's Richard III, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Love for Shakespeare did not come with my mother's milk. But not long after.

As a boy in a New Orleans where baths far outranked the number of showers, I can remember soaking in a Baronne Street tub while I soaked up his soliloquies and sonnets. Many a poor miss (and madam, as the years progressed) found herself under assault from "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" And "How like a winter hath my absence been from thee."

While not understanding every nuance, I sat enchanted through "Hamlet," in Russian and a languid French version endowed with Jean-Louis Barraud. In German, I found "to be or not to be" came out "sein oder nicht sein."

Settings ranged from Joe Papp's Central Park band shell, to Rock Creek Park's Carter Barron that featured towering trees that made Midsummer's Night Dream reality. Theatres? I cannot summon up them all: Washington, New York, Berlin and Paris. They include Stratford Festival of Canada, located in what was once a Victorian railroading town like next-door Brunswick.

This literary/entertainment wandering began in the library at Holy Cross College when I was 10 and first encountered Charles and Mary Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare Children's Classics."

Yet, in all those places and with all those truly gifted talents, I never encountered anything that quite matched the current fare at Washington Shakespeare Theatre, located on Seventh Street, in what was once Landsbergh's Department Store.

Director Michael Kahn has put together the finest production of a theatrical classic I've ever witnessed. Mr. Kahn is the real star of this "Richard III." I mean to take nothing away from the players; they deliver their poetry with piety, insight and considerable strength. They bring visceral passion, but that's their job.

In everything, from the super Erector set of stairs and ladders and magical doors that actively participates in the story-telling to the matter of how precisely the young princes plant their feet; Mr. Kahn's presence reigned supreme. If someone else figured out exactly where the large cast moves and stands, in the final analysis it doesn't matter, the producing director tendered the ultimate approval, or change. That's how things are supposed to go in the world of theater. The director's the man. And everyone else merely carries spears.

Until entering the review racket some 40 years ago, I had no idea the preparation, study and canoodling that went into a production. My friend and teacher Ed Sherin, then at Arena Stage, took close to two years to mount "Great White Hope," the breakthrough for Arena and Ed. The play itself gathered up a slew of Broadway Tonys and he married "Hope's" leading lady Jane Alexander: not a shabby reward by herself.

This is Richard III's third production at the Washington Shakespeare Theatre, but the first time the company's Artistic Director Kahn has mounted the work since he helmed Seventh Street's original production. What audiences get up there on stage is the brilliant product of the man out-guessing himself for nearly 17 years. Take, for example, the title character.

In lauding the director I do not mean to demean any of his players, especially Geraint Wyn Davies. For nearly three hours Mr. Davies reigns supreme capturing every eye and emotion, including an occasional sardonic laugh. His Richard III couldn't be more hideous. And there's Mr. Kahn's point.

Writing for a Tudor monarch, Shakespeare filled the last York king with total depravity, chicanery and viciousness. From his opening "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York..." the man who would be king oozes evil, but that's from the script."Deformed by nature" customarily awards the part a simple hunchback.

But Mr. Davies' character bears additional burdens. He is crippled and affected by some terrible disease that has infected his forehead eating into the hairline. Furthermore, this Richard III brandishes a vivid scar. This concept of make-up must be "blamed" on the director.

Taken at "face value," so to speak, you can wonder how the production's leading ladies can bear having their mouths and cheeks nuzzled by the ugly villain. That's why they're called actresses.

Some of the genius that makes this the finest production of a classic I've seen is the intellectual progression that made Mr. Davies the greatest monster I've witnessed, in the part. That's the central core of "Richard III" as conceived by Shakespeare. This is the first time I've witnessed the role with no saving grace. From the outset, he deserves assassination. He gets it at the end, including being "drawn and quartered."

The rest of the cast is called upon to react, each in an individual way. Even when not reacting, the players, singly and in numbers, participate strongly in executing Mr. Kahn's vision. He chose no weak reed for any role. Even the youngest actor bellies up to his part and does the theatrical world proud.

One final observation: The battle that finally does in Richard III cannot be adequately described in the written word. It is a chilling amalgam of choreography and thunder that receives all the bolstering that smoke and lighting can give. It furnishes Michael Kahn with a wow! ending that should be seen. There is time.

The nastiest man in theatrical literature will have his twisted and deformed body raised above the stage the last time on March 18. On the other hand, the best seats will doubtless be gone before February's cold segues into the winds that announce Spring's coming.

In other words, hurry! Michael Kahn and his non-merry crew have prepared a feast you don't really want to miss.

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