Review: Richard III at Blackfriars

Benjamin Curns owns his role as Richard III, portraying a character who is at once twisted and insecure. Richard III runs through April 5 at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, part of the American Shakespeare Center’s Renaissance Season. Benjamin Curns owns his role as Richard III, portraying a character who is at once twisted and insecure. Richard III runs through April 5 at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, part of the American Shakespeare Center’s Renaissance Season.

William Shakespeare’s Richard III is the study of how a politician’s over-developed ego drives the dark deeds he executes towards the attainment of high position. The play itself is a tidy piece of propaganda, according to Ralph Cohen, American Shakespeare Center’s director of mission, who described it as a reinforcement of Queen Elizabeth I’s legitimacy aimed at glorifying her grandfather, Henry VII, and vilifying his enemy, Richard III. With the presidential candidates gracing our television monitors on a nightly basis, it’s fun to see Richard stalking the stage, worrying about how to “…seem a saint where I must play the devil.”

From the first monologue, Curns exerts his control over the role, revealing a character who is human in his desire to be loved yet twisted in the methods he uses to pursue it. The cast leads us from one foul deed of deception and murder to another as the noose of insecurity pulls ever tighter around Richard’s neck, but the production notably uses humor to punctuate the play’s darkest moments. Lines like, “My hair doth stand on end,” are funny as delivered by actor Daniel Kennedy, whose head is shaved. The grim comedy in a game of catch played with the bloody bag containing the head of one of Richard’s targets elicited giggles from the crowd. The newest ASC version of the play opens with members of the acting troupe singing an a cappella version of Florence And The Machine’s hit song “Dog Days Are Over,” setting the tone for the peaceable rule of Richard’s brother King Edward IV. Richard, played by Benjamin Curns, then launches into the famous, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” soliloquy, in which he exposes all manner of evil plans to usurp the king in such a self-absorbed way that you can’t help but think about today’s politicians.

But the most riotous laughter ensued during a staged offer of the kingship by Buckingham (Rene Thornton, Jr.) to Richard, the usurper. Richard is purportedly at home in pious contemplation when Buckingham rallies a crowd to offer him the crown, following a well-orchestrated discrediting of the rightful heir’s parentage. Richard appears on his balcony flanked by his henchmen, who are posing as priests, and feigns humility. The ruse was so masterfully imitated by the players that the audience was moved to cheer in mock approval of Richard’s acceptance of the crown.

Richard III is littered with treachery: a widow wooed at her husband’s funeral, the murder of two young princes, constantly shifting allegiances. Basically, Richard eats people for breakfast, and his utter disregard for humanity to the end of personal gain is all too familiar. He is the guy you love to hate so much that you can’t help but cheer when he cries out in desperation, “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” as he is slain on the battlefield. His successor is scarcely better—the lesson being that one despot (read: politician) is just as immoral as the next. The best way to view Shakespeare’s plays is through the lens of the moment, and while I’m not counting on Gingrich, Romney, or Obama slaying anyone in the next couple of months, I couldn’t help but think of Cantor’s infamous sneer as I watched Curns bring one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains back to life.

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