Clever Dick: CofC conquers one of the Bard's best, humps 'n' all

Richard III
College of Charleston Theatre Department
Aug. 30-Sep. 1, 3, 4 at 8 p.m.
Sep. 2 at 3 p.m.$15, $10/CofC faculty, staff, students, and seniorsEmmett Robinson Theatre54 St. Philip St.953-5604

Long before the Wachowski brothers decided it was a good idea to make The Matrix trilogy, Shakespeare had a blockbuster saga of his own. The War of the Roses was a complex civil war instigated by two English families. The devious Lancasters and Yorks fought for the throne, throwing the whole country into chaos. The blood-soaked battlefields were fertile ground for Shakespeare, who wrote a whole series of plays set in that time.

Richard III picks up where the Henry VI trilogy left off, with Edward IV wearing the crown — but not for long. His brother, the Machiavellian Duke of Gloucester, has got his eye on it and he's prepared to deceive, cheat, and murder his closest associates to get it.

Richard is the villain we love to hate and hate to love. He isn't handsome or fortunate enough to be popular, and that injustice corrupts his soul. He does despicable things, but he's charismatic too, building a rapport with the audience that engenders sympathy when he gets his inevitable comeuppance.

In the College of Charleston's current production, faculty member Jamie Smithson gets the role right by being outré without going over the top with a Roddy McDowall voice and a Malcolm McDowell sneer. He's funny, sinister, and believable in all the right places. As his nemesis Queen Margaret (one of Shakespeare's great Boadicean creations), Samantha Church matches him; she excels in a particularly strong scene with Olivia Isgett-Ruben (Queen Elizabeth).

In a large cast, Robbie Thomas turns the Duke of Buckingham into a convincing spin doctor, spreading rumors on Richard's behalf; Antonio Nappo and Justin Avery make entertaining murderers, doing in Richard's other brother Clarence; Tara Denton is a majestic King Edward.

In a nod to the role reversals of Shakespeare's day, actresses play some of the male characters. While this occasionally gets confusing, most of the time it works. Eleanor Hollingsworth, Ashley Maley, and Courtney Fenwick are credible as Hastings, Grey, and Stanley. Kelly Jewell stands out as a deliciously psychotic Catesby.

The cross-gender casting is facilitated by Janine McCabe's costumes. They're a flowing mix of Asian robes and Shakespearean bodices, great to look at and color coded: Buckingham and Richard wear blood red, so the main character scuttles around the stage like a devious lobster. Guards and murderers are draped in black, the royals often wear gold, and priests dark green. Richard's girly silver crown is the only costume piece that underwhelms.

Allen Lyndrup's impressive, ever-shifting set uses Japanese screens, pivoting stairs, ornate banners, and a few stools to create a wide feudal world. A white backdrop is lit with strong, symbolic colors — deep blue, bright red — to set the mood for key scenes. Lighting Designer Paige Stanley keeps her scheme simple, but helps create some memorable stage pictures. Richard casts a crooked shadow on the red background and when two young heirs to the throne are smothered, a pair of snuffed candles flank the dark scene.

At three-and-a-half hours, this show could have been a chore for the actors and the audience. Director Evan Parry's decision to include some of the best bits from Henry VI are understandable, although they add 30 minutes to the running time. He spices up the battle scenes with impressive, Kurosawa-meets-Matrix fight choreography. Parry only puts a foot wrong when a host of dead foes return to haunt Richard.

The specters use "spooky" voices and hold electric lights under their chins to illuminate their faces, eliciting more sniggers than shivers from the audience.

The ghosts soon fade, though, and they don't scare away all the good that Parry, Smithson, and the rest of the crew achieve. Last year we opened our review of King Lear with a caveat — it was a student production, the actors were still learning, so give 'em a break, won't you? This year no such caveat is necessary; it seems 2006's stripped-down, one-play project gave the theatre department the breather it needed to pull out all the stops in '07. Thanks to the costumes, staging, and sincere performances, this is one of the most fun and accessible plays by the Bard we've seen in these parts.


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