Richard III and Twelfth Night on Broadway: A Review

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under "original practices."

Richard III and Twelfth Night are staged under “original practices.”

At the Belasco Theatre, New Yorkers are being treated to an all-too-rare opportunity to see Shakespeare’s Richard III and Twelfth Night performed under the “original practices” rubric favored at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London.

All costumes are authentically Elizabethan, meaning no zippers, no Velcro, no artificial anything. The sets are period as well; in this case mimicking a university dining hall where Shakespeare’s troupe sometimes performed with a minimum of props and scenery. Some seats are on stage recreating the intimacy of The Globe. And, of course, all the female roles are played by men.

If the historical recreation was all there was to these two productions it would probably be worth the price of admission. Fortunately there is much more on offer.

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Richard III at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

In the past, I have passed up chances to see such oddities as an all-female Taming of the Shrew and generally tend to view this sort of gender-bending casting as political correctness run amok. But having seen Seana McKenna distinguish herself on several occasions at Stratford, I gave in and saw her turn as Richard III. I’m glad I did, although the production failed to live up to its promise.

First, it must be said that McKenna is a much more than adequate Richard. So much so that I and several companions were left wondering why, after demonstrating that this woman could take up one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains and make you forget her gender almost immediately, the director Miles Potter (who is also McKenna’s husband) didn’t ask more of her.

For all the technical deftness, McKenna’s portrayal seldom does more than skate along the surface of this endlessly fascinating role. Indeed, the entire production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre has a certain pro forma quality, that is not helped by the fact that the costuming and wigs make many major characters look confusingly alike. Never have I seen a Richard III that was more a catalog of murders and less a psychological portrait.

That’s not to say the production doesn’t have it’s virtues. McKenna has some fine moments and Potter uses the simplest of theatrical devices to make the ghosts who visit Richard on the eve of his defeat truly chilling. The stylized battle scene that ends to play is also a clever solution to the problems posed by the Patterson’s elongated and narrow playing space. But over all the production never takes flight and accomplished actors who have dazzled in other productions tend to fizzle here.

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