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Uneven Interpretation

“Richard III” lacks the evil Shakespeare intended.


It’s a potent image of the man who will become Shakespeare’s Richard III. Unfortunately, there are not enough similar indicators of Richard’s monstrous, premeditated determination. Instead, Brandt portrays the king as a sweaty geek-weasel who merely exploits the murderous opportunities presented to him.

At Live Arts in Charlottesville last year, Brandt played the title role in an experimental production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Edward II.” The show featured S&M-inspired costumes and apocalyptic gunplay. Though he supplies Richard III’s requisite infirmities (imagine Dan Ackroyd’s impersonation of Bob Dole on “Saturday Night Live”), Brandt otherwise plays the two roles with almost identical inflections and mannerisms. But the two kings could not be more different. Edward is the very picture of vacillation. Richard, on the other hand, is steadfast in his villainy. We’re talking Hitler, Saddam Hussein, or even Charles Manson territory. The sameness of Brandt’s performances points to an absence of definition in the current show.

Three fidgety young boys sat behind me during the show. I doubt the sudden materialization of Lawrence Olivier as Richard III would have settled them down very much. But I can’t blame them for restlessness. The show is so unfocused that there were times when my own attention drifted, and I contemplated the mechanics of dropping slivers of paper into the king’s hair as he waited offstage next to the seats.

Aside from the thematic imprecision, Carey Upton’s direction is marred by a lot of awkward stop-and-go movement. And several scenes are played for slapstick laughs with no apparent underlying rationale. In fact, when Richard banters with the two young princes he soon will eliminate, the scene carries no poignancy whatsoever. Here, the production wastes the wit of Shakespeare’s dramatic irony on sophomoric horseplay.

With two notable exceptions, the actors deliver their lines with little regard for characterization. That’s why it’s a pleasure to see Mary Sue Carroll take the stage as Queen Margaret. Though her scenes are relatively small, Carroll goes beyond the text to energize the queen’s character. In her eyes even more than her dialogue, we can read Margaret’s torment. If only she were not wearing the earth-colored clothes and headbandlike crown. She looks more like a refugee from Woodstock than an imperial queen mother (hmm…Charles Manson as Richard III, hippies, acid rock … now there’s a weird interpretation of Shakespeare for you, at no charge).

Also, Stephen W. Ryan has a couple of nice turns as the Duke of Buckingham. Like Carroll, he takes his time and gives the audience an opportunity to absorb the contradictions that work beneath the surface of his lines.

At Bosworth Field, the Earl of Richmond (Henry Bazemore), defeats Richard in battle and becomes the first Tudor king, Henry VII. In a fine bit of stagecraft, ghosts speak to both men as they sleep before battle. The actors’ silhouettes are projected on the flaps of a tent. Subtle changes of position result in an impressive, unearthly illusion. However, the subsequent battle is rushed and the swordplay is not particularly polished.

Shakespeare isn’t for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of dedication to tackle the intricate plots and complex dialogue. Some obstacles include tight budgets, inclement weather, complaints about parking, mosquitoes (can a patron please buy the RSF one of those new-fangled, propane-powered mosquito killers?), and picky theater critics.

It’s clear that Encore! Theatre Company and the folks at Agecroft are devoted to the material and are refining the festival to deliver more consistency. And regardless of my criticisms, the opening-night audience appeared to enjoy the show. Even a show with numerous technical flaws is not completely irredeemable. S

“Richard III” continues through Aug. 2 at Agecroft Hall. Tickets cost $10-$17 and can be purchased by calling (800) 955-5566 or online at

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