Richard Reflects, Brilliantly

"I do mistake my person all this while," the future King Richard III (Michael Cumpsty) reflects after railroading his murder victim's wife into marrying him literally over her husband's dead body. "Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass." Renaissance superstition held that devils cast no shadow, so Richard needs a mirror to assure himself that he is not really a devil. In Classic Stage Company's production of Richard III, Cumpsty's Richard's reflections are brilliant, in a variety of ways. The set, by frequent Kulick collaborator Mark Wendland, literally surrounds Shakespeare's famous sociopath with illuminated looking-glasses. The performance space is paneled with mirrors and illuminated by gigantic crystal chandeliers, which are reflected in both the mirrors and a gleaming, slick floor. Oana Botez-Ban's costumes combine sleek, timeless shapes with evocative colors. Groups are color-coded. For example, the princes in yellow; Richard's brothers and sister-in-law wear blue. The bereaved women who blame Richard for their menfolks' deaths wear shiny black-and-grey gowns that capture and reflect the chandeliers' glaring light. Despite being surrounded by reflective surfaces, however, Cumpsty's Richard and the court strenuously try to avoid seeing themselves as they are.

Cumpsty and Kulick's informed, unpretentious directing makes this a non-patronizingly accessibleRichard. Hand gestures accentuate a few of the script's most opaque archaisms, such as "moiety,'' and when the dialogue mentions offstage characters, we see them. For example, the play opens with Richard facing the upstage mirrors, and turning to contemplate his brother Edward IV, who stands frozen, also reflected, wearing the crown and embracing a red-velvet-garbed mistress.

When Richard says that his "winter" is "made glorious by this noble son of York," he gestures to his brother. Later, when Edward mourns their middle brother, Clarence, murdered at his apparent demand by Richard's treachery, the king crosses to the "Tower" mid-speech and embraces his dead sibling, while the court looks on.

Cumpsty plays Richard as a believable three-dimensional being, not a snarling caricature. His disarming affability seems dangerously genuine. Cumpsty’s casual, chatty delivery of the early soliloquies is more compelling than Sir Ian McKellen’s famous interpretation in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film, and makes room for a huge change in persona when Richard finally lets his act fall apart.

Cumpsty’s Richard jokes with his enemies, and induces the audience to brittle nervous laughter. In one of the staging's most psychologically spot-on moments, Richard III presents his grieving sister-in-law, whose brothers and sons he has killed, with his superficially charming request to marry her one remaining child. Helpless and asked for a response, she laughs -- as in Chekhov's phrase -- through tears. Her reaction for once exposes Richard's absurdity. It is a laugh of dissent.

Among a strong cast, the other standout performance besides Cumpsty's is that of another bereaved dissenter, the former Queen Margaret, as played by Roberta Maxwell. Marching across the space like a general on the battlefield and delivering her "prophecies" with biting, confident lucidity, Maxwell reveals "Mad" Margaret as a surprisingly sane woman in a mad world.

Only the "prophetess" Margaret knows the real extent of Richard's destructive potential. When the women of the court crawl to her, demanding to learn how to "curse,'' Margaret gives us a haunted but patient orator and mentor figure. Maxwell's Margaret and Cumpsty's Richard are equals and opposites. Once as ruthless as him, she now sees herself in him as if in a carnival trick-mirror.

One weak point was the decision to distribute flags printed with Richard's insignia, a white boar, to the audience during Richard's election by the people of London. The passing of bunches of flags from spectators on the aisles to the middles of the rows was a distracting hassle. In order to participate in the flag brigade, this reviewer had to look away from the stage. While gazing at fellow spectators to see if any concerned citizens would refuse to hail Richard of Gloucester (yes, some did) this reviewer momentarily paid no attention to the impassioned speech that Buckingham (Michael Potts) was giving to the London populace. Directors as genuinely innovative as Kulick and Cumpsty need not rely on gimmicks.

Cumpsty and Kulick’s Richard III is the first production in Classic Stage Company’s Fortieth Anniversary Season. It will be a hard act to follow, but demonstrates why, unlike Richard, Classic Stage Company has enjoyed such a long and happy reign.

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