The final years of Richard of Gloucester, in which he became Richard III and was crowned king of England, were violent, tumultuous ones. They served as the final chapter of the War of the Roses, a bloody bit of business that spanned about three decades in late 15th century England. William Shakespeare's Richard III, first staged about a century following the events it dramatizes, tracks Richard's murderous ascent to the throne, containing as it did warring houses, treachery and deception, conniving family members, bastards and eventually full-scale battle. And given the historical and cultural consciousness of the contemporary moment, it's a great one for the North Coast Repertory Theatre to take on, one that succeeds on a great scale.
Richard III in its original form is a mammoth play, and in modern times is rarely brought to the stage in its full form and NCRT's production adheres to that. The cast also eschews English accents. Despite its dire subject matter, Richard III is alive with its author's flair for great humor throughout. But any review of the play must focus on Richard himself, and here the lead does not disappoint — Tyler Egerer, last seen on the same stage in The Hollow — inhabits Richard masterfully. Scarred, hunched and with a withered arm, the duke is not weak but lustful for power, of a vicious temperament and an unscrupulous, contemptible fiend. Egerer leans into the role, communicating well with the audience with a glimmer of his eyes, an aside or a sudden bellow to one of his minions. Richard provides exposition at the start, introducing us to the principals of the story, various royals from the house of York and Lancaster. Richard comes from the former, and atop the throne sits Edward, his older and physically failing brother. In a lapse in the acrimony of the War of the Roses, Richard spots a chance to ascend to power by wooing Lady Anne of the Lancasters (Megan Hughes). There the small matter of his having murdered both her husband and her father, but we see him take this very course of action over the coffin of her husband. Throughout the play Egerer's Richard acts cunningly, with an unerring sense of an enemy's weakness, just as he does with Lady Anne.
What then unfolds is a great maze of plotting all around, with Richard at first always a step ahead of his rivals. He soon orders the killing of his brother Clarence (Evan Needham) and others follow, although we begin to sense that although Richard and his fellow schemers may be a step ahead of those he plots to push aside and kill, he may be missing the bigger picture and what could eventually be his undoing.
The play's director, David Hamilton, makes great use of the play's ghosts. The spirits of Anne, Clarence and other allies and enemies that Richard dispatches in the course of the story return at points, increasing in number, slowly filing in. Dressed in white, they at first say nothing, but as the story propels forward, the actors portraying the departed draw closer and whisper to Richard as he descends into paranoia. Death itself appears throughout the play, incarnated eerily by Chyna Leigh, clad in white and black and drifting wraith-like around the stage or to stand in the shadows or to lounge with anticipation on the throne on the back of the spare, smartly done set.
Among the supporting cast, there is a great trio of women in Hughes' Anne, saddened York matriarch Elizabeth (Caroline McFarland) and the widowed Queen Margaret (NCRT vet Andrea Zvaleko). Zvaleko especially brings real vigor to her role, as does Catesby (Montel Vander Horck III) in the challenging and colorful role of Catesby. And the costumes by Kelsey Larson for a cast of nearly two dozen are superb, spanning royalty in states of decadence, mourning or desolation, to those dressed for deadly battle or even passed from the living plane.
A battle looms at the climax of Richard III, one finely executed by Hamilton and his cast. Richard rouses his troops into battle and exhorts "Fight, gentlemen of England, fight bold yeomen./ Draw, archers, draw your arrows to the head./ Spur your proud horses hard, and ride in blood./ Amaze the welkin with your broken staves!" Then the limits of the production are cast aside with effective use of sound and lighting effects, fog on the stage and he clang of swords and armor as Richard and his remaining allies clash with his foes and his deserted former lieutenants — all while Death dances near to them and finally holds the fallen in her grasp. Egerer's Richard is the audacity of evil and power run amok, but reaching this endgame, you understand how he got there.
Richard III plays at the North Coast Repertory Theatre on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through April 15, as well as Thursday, April 13 at 8 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on April 2 and April 9. For more information, call 442-NCRT or visit www.ncrt.net.
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