Bottled-spider web

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  February 5, 2008

This is an exciting production, chilling in its clinically enacted violence, which includes garroting, one-handed strangulation, mob-style assassination, and the on-stage clubbing to death of one of the princes in the Tower. Often its Richard travels in the company of impassive thugs Catesby and Ratcliffe (Tyrrel having hit the cutting-room floor), one of whom carries rubber gloves and instruments of torture in a gleaming metal suitcase. My cavil is that there is little nuance in McEleney’s Richard — despite the character’s initial appraisal of himself as “subtle, false, and treacherous.” The actor’s audacious, red-haired hellhound garners a lot of laughs with his turns on a dime from unctuous tears and sucking up to unmasked revelry in his villainy. But it’s hard to believe even a brilliant strategist like Richard would win his murderous chess game by so overdoing the acting. I liked McEleney’s Richard better after he’d merrily slaughtered his way to the crown and had to start obsessing about keeping it. The haunted monarch of act five, with no pity for himself and grimly alive to the fact that the murderer in the tent is he, is more formidable, even on his doomsday, than the razor-sharp plotter hee-hawing at his own perversity.

The placing of Richard III, Shakespeare’s breakout play, in the broader setting of the War of the Roses (artistic director Curt Columbus compares the Henry VI trilogy and its dramatic successor to the Star Wars cycle) is not a bad idea — especially if the intent is to draw parallels with the partisan, some might say malevolent, politics of today. Certainly Michael McGarty has designed an effective metaphor of a set; gray and brutalist, it looks like a one-time edifice that’s been smashed, its pinions skewed beneath broken hunks of concrete. A few of the supporting performances are similarly muscular, especially Phyllis Kay’s as a Queen Elizabeth whose hatred and sarcasm bristle. To Richard’s ally, “the deep-revolving, witty Buckingham,” the very natural Fred Sullivan Jr. brings an Irish-tinged jocularity and the street smarts of a kingmaker.

More genteel stuff is Rebekah Maggor’s one-woman show, Shakespeare’s Actresses in America (presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through February 11). Performer and Huntington Playwriting Fellow Maggor, who has developed this exploration of evolving histrionics in part by listening to recordings, is a graceful presence and an uncanny mimic, whether replicating the “vocal velvet” of early-20th-century thespian Julia Marlowe essaying Juliet, the shimmering vibrato of English actress Ellen Terry in the same role, or the guitar-licked depressive monotone of Claire Danes on the balcony in Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film. But this 65-minute work, which Maggor has been tweaking since its 2006 debut courtesy of American Repertory Theatre, is more lecture/demonstration than theater piece — even when gussied up by a high-collared red gown and the occasional oddities of Karin Coonrod’s direction.

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