'Richard III': Shakespearean mayhem, performed in parks

Joshua L. Browns and Mary Tuomanen as Richard III and Lady Anne.
Joshua L. Browns and Mary Tuomanen as Richard III and Lady Anne. (SARAH GREENSLADE)
Posted: July 12, 2011

Who is killing the royal members of Britain's House of Plantagenet? According to Shakespeare's murder-laden Richard III, in free performances this month by the Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company at parks across the region, it's the title character himself. With the help of hit men, of course.

History is not so certain; Richard, who ruled for two years in the late 1400s and endowed King's College of Cambridge, may have been responsible for the murders of the two young princes who were ahead of him in the line of succession, and may have helped deal similarly with several other relatives - but may have doesn't make a good Elizabethan play.

And Richard III is good - full of evildoing, treachery, power-mongering, and deception, mostly on the part of the Duke of Gloucester, who becomes King Richard III. That part, in Dan Hodge's production, is taken by Joshua L. Browns, cofounder of the company, who gives us a smug, wink-wink creep of a plotter and, in the production's second half, a ruthless king - and even makes you like the guy a little, though you know you shouldn't.

That second half is when this Richard III takes off, becoming a commanding drama rather than a bulky setup - a problem that, in fairness, is as much from Shakespeare's writing as from a production whose excisions still fail to clarify the many relatives and reasons for their fates.

Shakespeare wrote the script almost as a geometric progression - everything falls into place so precisely, there's little room for audience anticipation. This Richard III sometimes comes across as declamation rather than heartfelt speech, underscoring the play's mechanical quality.

Even so, the production has much merit, in Browns and his sidekick, played by Brian McCann, and in Mary Tuomanen, Christie Parker, Paul Parente, Robert DaPonte, and cast members who back them up. (I saw it Sunday night in a lovely part of the Elkins Estate in Cheltenham; it moves to East Falls' McMichael Park next. Check the website, www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org, for locations.)

The production employs a clever touch: When a character dies (many do), the actor takes another role and comes out in whiteface, like a ghost playing the new part. Tidily, these actors do become the ghosts of their dead characters toward the play's end.

The late-in-the-play sword scenes staged by David Mason could use a little tightening; on the other hand, the tightened script doesn't make clear why Richard is yelling about his "kingdom for a horse." The yelling comes through well, though, as does the kitschy score in Daniel Perelstein's sound design, the best sound quality of any outdoor Shakespeare I've experienced in the region.

Richard III

Presented by Commonwealth Classic Theatre Company at parks throughout the region, through July 30. The performances are free. A schedule of parks, dates, and times is at www.commonwealthclassictheatre.org. Phone: 610-202-7878.

Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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