Although winter may have come and gone, now remains the season of our discontent, politically speaking. With more Americans than ever fed up with the character flaws and legislative failures of career politicians, Shakespeare’s early tragedy Richard III takes on special resonance in this presidential election season.
Thus it makes a particularly apposite choice for PCPA, which opened the show at the Marian Theater in Santa Maria last Saturday, just in time to catch the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The cruel and confiding Richard was a breakthrough for the Bard, and an indicator of the direction he would explore in such later figures as Othello’s Iago and King Lear’s Edmund. These treacherous characters flaunt their evil plans and burn with a fascinating and frightening compulsion. As Richard, PCPA faculty member Andrew Philpot offered a rounded and convincing Richard III, nasty in all the right places, yet still capable of eliciting laughter from the audience with his wickedly self-conscious asides. Philpot’s costume, which paired a grey double-breasted blazer with a single, Dr. Strangelove-like black glove, provides a good example of the design of the show as a whole, which leaned toward a modernized, fascist/military motif.
As for the drama, while uneven, it is nevertheless one of Shakespeare’s earliest triumphs. This mode of presenting human psychology, in which characters can be seen to change through listening not only to each other, but also to themselves, would become the playwright’s signature innovation. Richard’s exuberance saves him from becoming a mere cartoon villain, and when he says “Off with his head,” one senses that first of all, he means it, and secondly, he’s enjoying every minute of holding the power to issue such a devastating command. It’s certainly a more interesting catch phrase than its distant, weaker cousin, “You’re fired.”
Mark Booher’s interest in stage movement—he’s listed in the program as the play’s fight choreographer—meshed with his impeccable delivery of Richard III’s most memorable non-Richard speech, brother Clarence’s fantastic account of his fatal dream of drowning. In this production, that speech led to a bout of grappling between Booher’s Clarence and his jailer, and it was one of the evening’s high points.
Kitty Balay delivered a memorably ferocious performance as the widowed Queen Margaret, and Elizabeth Stuart lent dignity and grace to the long fourth scene of Act 4, in which the pair of queens confronts the usurping joker Richard. Margaret mouths an unforgettable judgment of disgust to open that sequence when she says, “Now prosperity begins to mellow / And drop into the rotten mouth of death.” Wouldn’t this make a charming inscription for the gates of Mar-a-Lago? Top that Elizabeth Warren, if you can.