Annapolis Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard III is a darkly compelling piece of theater. Directed by Donald Hicken, it strips the stage of all but a few props, allowing great acting and directing, as well as creative lighting, to tell the story of a madman’s rise to power. Even those familiar with Shakespeare’s play will enjoy watching the action unfold.
Kurt Elftmann plays Richard as a masterful actor, always playing a role to the other characters. His performance is heartfelt and genuine, whether professing his love or refusing to accept the throne. He carries the last scene amazingly well, appearing onstage as if befuddled, then bringing his speaker (and fellow conspirator) to nearly beg Richard to take the power that has been offered. It’s a remarkably powerful show of manipulation.
When he is the only one on stage his true nature emerges. His soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent”, for instance, is full of menace. After detailing his plan to marry he almost invites the audience to laugh with him as he remarks, “what, though I killed her husband and father?” Wearing a leather jacket, he looks like the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang, standing slightly slumped over, suggesting a hunchback, and walking with a slight limp. He has a flair for dramatic gestures, on his knees with his sword ready to plunge into his heart, for example, or before his crown in prayer. Yet there are also signs of humanity. Waking from a nightmare, he starts from bed, trembling as he speaks and tries to gain control. For a moment, he shows his vulnerability and fear.
As powerful as Elftmann is, the women in this play are just as strong. Olivia Ercolano, as Lady Anne, captivates in her changes from grief to anger and something like love. She rages at Richard, confronting him with the truth of his actions; she spits at him at one point. Her edge softens slightly after Richard’s seemingly noble gesture with the sword, much quieter. She exits that scene with the confusion evident on her face. She perfectly captures her conflicting emotions, and her strange position in the play.
Laura Rocklyn is also strong as Queen Elizabeth. Her desperation to protect what remains of her family combines with her anger at Richard for a powerful performance. His suggestion seems to give her strength, and she pursues him around the stage, matching him word for word, until he makes a dramatic gesture. Watching the power shift and flow is fascinating.
Sue Strove dominates the stage as Queen Margaret. In all her scenes, she begins in a corner, but soon takes to the center to hurl curses at Richard and the men in her family. She radiates righteous anger and calls out Richard on his evil. At one point, she takes two of the other women by their hands and raises them all to heaven, urging retribution and vengeance. Her rage is powerful and almost intoxicating.
Julia Brandeberry as the Duchess of York is somewhat quieter than the other women, but her grief is no less palatable. She helps to comfort Anne as she realizes the horror of her situation, and gives strength and courage to the others in confronting Richard. Her curses are the only ones that make him visibly squirm.
Brian Keith MacDonald gives a sinister cunning to the Duke of Buckingham. One of his strongest performances is in the scene with Richard, urging him to accept the crown. MacDonald plays it perfectly, his passion and pleading slowly growing and coming across so strongly, it is difficult to remember that it’s all a ruse. His anger also bursts forth at times; during a moment’s argument with Richard, he interrupts the king, then spits out his displeasure when alone onstage. His usually quiet, stiff demeanor hides his rage and ambition.
Steve Polites plays several roles, including King Edward IV and the Earl of Richmond. As Edward, he seems old and frail, sitting on his throne in a stooped position, his voice somewhat horse. As Richmond, the contrast is remarkable; he stands to address his troops with energy and passion, urging them to fight for what’s right. Although he is not onstage for long, he is clearly the hero to Richard’s villainy.
JC Payne plays the young prince of York with a youthful eagerness. His voice fills with pride when talking about his uncle’s military prowess. Alexander Burnett plays Prince Edward slightly older and wiser. Although young, he is calm in the face of danger, giving commands, asking advice, and making decisions. Knowing their fate makes watching them a sad experience.
Adam Mendelson employs terrifically creative lighting design. During some intense moments, darkness and light are used unusually to create powerful effects, intensifying the suspense and drama.
Sandra Spence’s costumes combine elements of both contemporary dress and period piece. Margaret wears a silver dress with a long black shawl. Buckingham has a military style jacket and golden sash. Young York wears a t-shirt and black scarf, while Richmond wears an army style camouflage jacket and boots.
Jack Golden is careful as Scenic Designer, using only a few props. An ornamented chair serves as throne, while a long table serves several purposes.
Sally Boyett as Sound Designer cleverly incorporates military drums at several points throughout the play, building a sense of dread as Richard’s plans take shape.
Donald Hicken’s direction employs all parts of the intimate stage and allows the actors to easily navigate around it. Shakespeare’s language seems to come naturally.
Don’t miss this suspenseful and exciting production of Richard III. I’m sure the Bard would have been thrilled.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.