By Leigh E. Rich
Arizona Daily Wildcat March 18, 1996
Don't let the advent of spring break or the fearful mixture of Shakespeare, tragedy and theater keep you from seeing the Arizona Repertory Theatre's latest demonstration of professionalism and excellence, "Richard III." Tickets prices are on par with the movie houses here in town (the UA offers various sorts of discounts) and the ART delivers a thoroughly marvelous experience.
In competition with Ian McKellen's recent film version, based on his 1992 theatrical tour and set in 1930s Germany, the ART and director Doug Finlayson create an equally unique and moving production permeated with violence, lust, greed, humor and pity. Finlayson's set (designed by Peter Windingstad) and costumes (Zhao Yuan Ting) juxtapose classical English verve with the fast-paced, voracious modern corporate world. Richard's rise and imminent downfall unfold within the realm of big business and politics.
There are few theaters in Tucson that compare with the UA Laboratory space, with its infinite possibilities and high-tech capabilities, and Finlayson takes advantage of it to highlight the play's extraordinary theatrical quality. The cohesive design with its minute details woos the audience even before Richard imparts, "Now is the winter of our discontent."
"Richard III," one of Shakespeare's earlier works, is perhaps more melodrama than tragedy. Shakespeare deliberately plays with the double connotations in Richard's lines, thus creating an outwardly Janus-like character. Unlike Iago (who excels at false appearances and indulges in evil for evil's sake) and Macbeth (equivocal in his thirst for power at any cost), Richard is a simpler villain. Twisted and deformed physically, Richard's cannibalistic insatiability feeds on the childhood taunts he must have endured. Even he admits that dogs bark at him when he walks past.
The play involves both Richard's bloodthirsty ascension to the throne of England and, as Finlayson states, his descent from the throne of self-control. Richard schemes to obtain the throne currently occupied by his indulgent brother, Edward (Steve Minow), and disdainful sister-in-law, Queen Elizabeth (Jamie Lynn Hines). To accomplish this task, Richard murders his other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Ryan Nitz), discredits his two nephews (whom he has killed when crowned king), slaughters his wife (Danyelle Angelina Bossardet) for political reasons, and betrays his ever loyal sidekick Buckingham (Rob Sutton). He possesses a "bloody mind that only dreams of butcheries," and both his heart and his tongue are false. According to Finlayson, "he savors the battle more than the victory and so his downfall is imminent."
John Sama portrays Richard, agile in his crookedness. One of the most physically demanding roles for an actor, Sama delivers a convincing and seductive Duke of Gloucester. He woos his audience as easily as he does Lady Anne (over the body of her recently deceased father-in-law). It is hard to not (perversely) love Richard, an atrocity of nature, even though Anne and the audience know that her father-in-law's and husband's deaths are part of his handiwork. Between espousing words of love and running through all who know him cap-a-pie, Richard clearly demonstrates that violence and lust are brothers.
Yet somehow, Richard's popularity never wavers. Sama's vitality explores all the facets of human emotions. He is explosive and controlled but unequivocally evil. He seems "a saint when most I please a devil" and gains the throne with sneaky maneuvers and dirty tactics. Richard earns his due and claims, at his coronation, "It is my day," as it is Sama's.
Sama's Richard (with the help of the Bard) takes the audience from disgust and intrigue to true pity. During the dream sequence before his final battle, Richard is visited by all his victims, and the audience is allowed to witness his body count. It is the only sign that he has a conscience and the only moment of self-realization. "There is no creature loves me, And if I die no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?"
"Richard III" is a play about deformity in all of its humors. Unlike Iago and Macbeth, the oft-berated Richard the Lobster comes to be understood, though not excused, by the audience. There is recognition and reversal - not merely for Richard but for his audiences during the past 400 years. Of course, for the Duke of Gloucester, this realization comes too late and makes for true tragedy.
Only the genius of Shakespeare (and a unified and talented cast and crew) can make tragedy so delightful. Shakespeare must be seen, heard and felt, not merely read. The late Harold C. Goddard once wrote, "The world is forever catching up with Shakespeare - only to fall behind him again." And while Richard informs his royals subjects, "I am not in the vein of giving today," the Arizona Repertory Theatre certainly is.