Review: Danai Gurira Stars in a Properly Thrilling Richard III at Free Shakespeare in the Park
Robert O'Hara directs the history play at the Delacorte Theater.
There are two classes of Shakespeare shows: the ones that force average Joes to guess what's happening because they're so incomprehensible, and the ones that spell out every single detail for an audience they know won't necessarily get it all. The Public Theater's 2022 Free Shakespeare in the Park staging of Richard III, directed by Robert O'Hara (of Slave Play and Bootycandy fame) and starring the ferocious Danai Gurira (of The Walking Dead and Eclipsed), falls squarely in the latter camp.
O'Hara gives us an extremely fast-paced cutting of Shakespeare's second-longest play, where the text clocks in at roughly two hours and 15 minutes (not counting the 20-minute intermission and, on our night, a 20-minute delayed start for seating latecomers). While Bard aficionados probably won't be too keen on many of the directorial flourishes, intriguing as they are, or with some of the performances, the regular New Yorkers among us will appreciate the lucidity of the storytelling. This is one of the clearest and most rousing evenings I've spent at the Delacorte in Central Park in my two decades of seeing shows there.
Even not knowing that Richard III is the last part of Shakespeare's "War of the Roses" tetralogy, which chronicles the rivalry between British royal houses Lancaster and York, O'Hara's revival is completely followable, which is a feat in and of itself (as a colleague once wrote, watching Richard III as a standalone is akin to "showing Martians Return of the Jedi and expecting them to know what the heck is going on"). He drills this 29,278-word play down to the barest essentials: Richard, the physically disabled Duke of Gloucester (Gurira) schemes, marries, and murders his way to the crown, only to be killed in battle himself, thereby ending the reign of the Plantagenets and ushering in the Tudor dynasty.
A stodgy old PBS drama this ain't: O'Hara stages the play like it's Game of Thrones meets House of Cards. There's a conniving antihero at the center who you know you shouldn't root for but do anyway, and fabulous guest stars who show up for 10 minutes and threaten to walk away with the whole thing. Sharon Washington steals her two scenes as Queen Margaret, cursing everyone and then strolling out completely unruffled, and Daniel J. Watts is quite the scary Ratcliffe, Richard's enforcer, who at one point enters with a battle axe, ready to decapitate.
Gurira is captivating as Shakespeare's irredeemable rogue, delivering a beautifully spoken rendering that relies on the words to make Richard the crazy bastard he is, sans hump, sans limp. It's one of those performances that you want to watch repeatedly to catch all the facets of it; at one point, I swear I could even see her eyes glisten with the spirit of the devil as the evil develops within her. It was thrilling, and her swagger is sexy as hell, too.
Rather than fall into the regular trap of the play — a nondisabled actor playing a disabled king — O'Hara has turned it around and cast actors with different disabilities in supporting roles. Richard's mother, the Duchess of York (Monique Holt), is Deaf and signs her scorn for her son in one of the evening's most extraordinary moments. Lady Anne, whom Richard woos as an early step to ascendency and later poisons, uses a bedazzled wheelchair (Tony winner Ali Stroker, whose artificial line delivery suggests someone who doesn't understand what she's saying). And in a nifty shift, Richmond, the future king, is commandingly played by Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy (Mozgala himself portrayed a variation on Richard in Mike Lew's Teenage Dick, which ran several years ago at the Public). The result is a beautifully inclusive kingdom, with representation that goes a long way in an industry that desperately needs to catch up.
This kingdom is also charged with the erotic atmosphere of a kink club. The pointy metallic set by Myung Hee Cho, the leathery Royalwear costumes by Dede Ayite, the red neon lighting by Alex Jainchill, and the thumping musical underscoring by Elisheba Ittoop creates a world that drips with sex and sweat on a hot summer night. That's the last thing you'd expect from one of Shakespeare's history plays, but it goes a long way in leading us to the edge of our seats.
Admittedly, not all these disparate-sounding choices add up, and those of us searching for the why in O'Hara's staging will probably come up empty-handed. But I found this Richard III properly thrilling. My kingdom for more nights like that.