Silent Richard

The program bio for actor Henry Holden, the mobility-impaired actor who plays the title role in Nicu's Spoon's new production of Shakespeare's Richard III, declares that Holden "lives by his motto: attitudes are the real disability." Disabled actors have long proved that motto true, overcoming with their strong, professional acting the prejudices of able-bodied spectators. For example, Sarah Bernhardt did not let the amputation of her right leg end her career. After her recuperation, she played Hamlet from a chair and, in the film Jeanne Doree, gifted her legendary talents to the silver screen. That film was a silent, but in her other late performances, as far as I know, Bernhardt memorized her lines and declaimed them herself.

I wish I could say the same of Henry Holden. Despite being credited as Richard, he speaks very little of the play's dialogue—the soliloquies, a few asides, and a few one-liners. The rest of the role is spoken by Andrew Hutcheson, who stands in a corner of the playing space reading from a script on a music stand.

Holden's acting style is completely different from Hutcheson's. Holden's Richard, when he speaks, is a grinning, sneering, truly captivating jester of misrule. Hutcheson's a prim, dispassionate shadow of Kenneth Branagh's declamatory style. This makes Richard look schizophrenic, and the constant shifting between actors violently jerks the listener out of the play's world each time it happens, like an alarm clock repeatedly interrupting a fascinating dream.

Worse, Holden does not even attempt to lip-sync to Hutcheson's recital. While Hutcheson talks, Holden keeps his mouth still in a half-open puppet-like expression. Because no other role is played this way, it makes Richard look like a robot or a puppet.

Is this a deliberate, radical staging concept? Not really. "Co-player" Hutcheson is a late addition to the cast: his bio appears in a program insert, not the program itself. When I asked a company member why Holden and Hutcheson share the role, she said that "circumstances led us to this point, and we're very happy with what we have now."

This production has a lot going for it. The play is directed competently and creatively by Heidi Lauren Duke, who clarifies the action by adding silent scenes that show the murders of most of Richard's victims. The supporting cast is strong, with standouts including Amber Allison's flexibly played multiple roles; Wynne Anders's vehement Queen Margaret; Rebecca Challis's haughty, vulnerable Queen Elizabeth; and Jason Loughlin's terrified Clarence and confident Richmond. Timothy McDonough, an actor to watch out for, makes an unusually arresting presence out of the minor thug Catesby.

Victoria Roxo's set starkly and clearly introduces Richard's uncomfortable, unstable obstacle course of a world. A crumbling granite arch balances precariously on a pair of splintered, haphazardly arranged wooden stilts. The floor is a tricky puzzle of mismatched gray stones bisected by a growing tree of dangerous cracks.

However, the vacuum at the center created by a mostly silent, mostly blank-faced Richard makes the whole look unprofessional and dehumanizes the character more than Shakespeare ever did. This is not, I assume, the intention of a company that aims to "give voice" to unheard groups, including the disabled.

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