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Theater review: Richard III at Kitchen Dog

by Jerome Weeks 11 Apr 2008 8:40 AM

l to r: Rene Moreno as Richard III, Cameron Cobb as Buckingham. Photo by Matt Mrozek. _______________________________________________ KERA feature on Rene Moreno and Richard III. The Dallas Morning News review of Richard III Glenn Arbery’s review of Richard III in Park Cities People Kitchen Dog Theater _______________________________________________ Rene Moreno, who plays the title role in […]


Ktichen Dog’s Richard III with Rene Moreno as Richard, Cameron Cobb as Buckingham, photo by Matt Mrozek

l to r: Rene Moreno as Richard III, Cameron Cobb as Buckingham.
Photo by Matt Mrozek.



Rene Moreno, who plays the title role in the Kitchen Dog Theater‘s stripped-down, speeded-up, noisy-fun adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Richard III, is actually not the first disabled actor to assay the role of the “poisonous, bunchback’d toad” — although he may be the first to play him in a wheelchair. (Moreno lost the use of his legs in a 1991 fall and has been acting and directing in area theater since 1993.) Last year, for instance, an off-Broadway production starred a physically handicapped actor on crutches — crutches he needs in ordinary life.

Essentially, this interpretation of Shakespeare’s tyrant — Richard III as Josef Goebbels, as the “vicious cripple” — can be traced back to Antony Sher’s famously shocking 1984 interpretation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, a performance best encountered these days through Sher’s own diary and sketchbook about his experiences, Year of the King (released in 2006 in a new, 20th anniversary edition). Early in his fashioning of Richard in rehearsals — an attempt to get around what he thought was Laurence Olivier’s “definitive” film performance — Sher realized that

I’ve never seen anyone play Richard’s pain, his anger, his bitterness, all of which is abundant in the text …. It seems to me that Richard’s personality has been deeply and dangerously affected by his deformity, and that one has to show that connection.

The pain is plain in the Kitchen Dog’s first scene, when Richard delivers his “winter of our discontent” soliloquy, hailing his brother King Edward’s coronation. Opening this adaptation by director Ian Leson is a raucous, rock ‘n’ roll, dancefloor celebration — recall the swanky, big- band extravaganza at the beginning of Ian McKellen’s fascist film version from 1995. Richard’s speech has a “turn,” though: It begins by hailing Edward’s victory in the recent dynastic wars, but Richard then concludes by sneering at Edward and his new peaceful world and declares himself the villain who will trash the tea party.

The difference between the film and the Kitchen Doggers is revealing: In McKellen’s version, Richard carefully absents himself from the festivities to deliver these boasts and threats in private — in the men’s lavatory, apparently the only (lavishly appointed) place a British nobleman can speak his mind. Moreno’s Richard, in contrast, is rudely excluded from the shindig halfway through. He starts his oration, and the other Eurotrash nobles pay little attention. Their carousing continues until everyone exits through an elevated door that Richard can’t reach. And so he’s left abandoned.

McKellen accepts Richard as evil simply because he’s a fascist. With Moreno, we see the resentful monster born — presumably after a lifetime of such slights.

Antony Sher as Richard III

Antony Sher as Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company, 1984

At the RSC in 1984, Sher had recently been in crutches for a snapped Achilles’ tendon, so his daring leap actually was quite logical and highly theatrical: make Richard’s infamous hunchback, limp and withered arm more extreme, make his unattractive deformities into severe physical  disabilities. But while studying victims of scoliosis, kyphosis and polio to capture their skeletal distortions and convulsive movements, Sher also researched mass murderers.

His Richard, in other words, may act out of personal pain and rejection, but he’s still a psychopath. After all, in the Wars of the Roses, some of Richard’s fellow Yorkists are itching to kill the Lancastrian opposition in order to hold the throne. Richard, on the other hand, murders his own brother Clarence — as just the first step in his plan to seize the throne: “Simple, plain Clarence! I do love thee so/That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.”

If that’s how he begins, imagine what he’ll do when he really gets going. It’s such icy, snarky statements (and actions) by Richard that cut against a reasonable or (entirely) sympathetic figure. We’re given ample evidence, for instance, that Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, despises him: Every other word she says to him is a spitting insult. Little wonder if he’d want to avenge himself on her. But he never does — not directly, at any rate (indirectly, of course, he butchers plenty of her relatives).

Clarence, meanwhile, is so thoroughly likable and unobjectionable, he speaks amiably with Richard and even regrets the wartime killings he committed for Edward — moments before Richard’s goons come for him. Shakespeare milks this entire nightmare-and-murder prison scene for maximum pathos. It’s clear we’re meant to feel for Clarence — and we’re not meant to conclude that, well, he did tease Richard on the playground. In the play, the subsequent deaths — as they so often do — generally come with less emotional mess than this. But then, most of the subsequent victims, like Rivers and Hastings, are implicated in the general chicanery. To quote Sweeney Todd: They all deserve to die. More or less.

So the hunchbacked Richard begins with a high degree of both calculated ruthlessness and self-interest. He may be lashing back at people who (he feels) slighted him, but he always keeps his eye on the throne. Yes, the Kitchen Doggers’ attempt to give Richard motivation, to humanize the monster, makes sense, even theatrical sense. He’s no longer some campy boogeyman. But we need to see his cold-blooded brutality, too — at least a flash of it from the very start.

We need to because otherwise there’s not much sense of real, brooding danger. In this regard, the wheelchaired Moreno really doesn’t fit Sher’s “vicious cripple” interpretation — almost the opposite. For Sher, the crutches and disabilities are part of Richard’s overall pathology. Richard is a monster because people hated him, so now he turns these hated deformities against them. They are actively, exultantly part of his monstrousness: He waves his crutches in people’s faces, delights in his superiority over others. What was scorned is now holding up their king.

But the suggestion in the Kitchen Dog production is that a Richard in a wheelchair really isn’t pathological. He’s just a handicapped guy who’s been hurt and insulted and now is getting some payback because people have been disrespecting the Americans with Disabilities Act. We don’t really fear (or enjoy) him.

Moreno, for example, never uses his wheelchair as a vengeful machine the way Sher used his crutches (I waited for Moreno to run over someone’s foot or bang into a shin.) That may seem vulgar or cheap or potentially offensive to the physically challenged. Yet engaging our secret, bad selves is precisely part of the pleasure of Richard III. We exult as Richard does. We let our amorality out for an unleashed romp — it needs the exercise — and we get to feel smart and funny amid this lot of over-paid, privileged dullards until the princes in the Tower are murdered. Bumping off grown-up, upper-class twits is one thing. Picking on defenseless children like that — it’s not much sport for any grown man.

So in all this, in making Richard more human, less “psycho,” more “explicable,” Leson and Moreno make him too subdued — at least at the start. The line readings are mostly modest and quiet; not creepy-Peter Lorre quiet, either, just uninflected in that stone-flat way David Mamet prefers. The intent of this plain reading is to let the lines breathe fresh on their own. But the consistent lack of flourishes only calls attention to the deliberate lack of flourishes, especially on such highly theatrical, extremely self-conscious lines like the “I am determined to prove a villain” stuff. How can any human speak such lines without a wink, a sly smile or even a chilly deadpan?

The murders and the speeches — as is so often the case — do come more easily for Richard as he wades into blood. Indeed, Moreno delivers the Lady Anne seduction soliloquy (“Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?) like a champ. Here he pulls out the charm and the flourishes, and they’re well-earned. He’s beginning to delight in the game. And it is a game to Richard at the beginning: That’s a main trait of a psychopath — an inability to feel the suffering of his victims, which is why Richard can say “chop off his head” with such audience-pleasing aplomb. A game is a game because there are no real-life, moral consequences to it, and Richard feels none — until his final, ghost-haunted speech.

It’s not that Richard has to be an over-the-top Hannibal Lecter, hissing his villainy in every scene. But it’s revealing that halfway through the Kitchen Dog Richard, Moreno angrily grabs an underling, drags him down to his face level — and we see in that instant, at last, not only his potential brutality but also Moreno’s upper-body strength. He’s not just a killer or a tyrant; he’s a formidable one, even in the wheelchair. We never saw that before — despite Richard’s taunts and casual orders for execution.

I’ve spent so much space on Moreno because a Richard III rises and falls on the (hunch)back of its tyrant, and because it’s evident that Moreno and Leson have put some thought into this: It’s not a case of letting an actor loose in the bad-wig-and-hump department for a show-boaty role. Evidence for the production’s smarts is clear in Cameron Cobb’s wonderfully droll Buckingham. Richard’s sidekick has long been portrayed as an oily functionary, but Cobb plays him like an eager young lawyer or political aide — utterly compromised by his clients and his own criminality yet still looking sharp and business-conservative in his suit, knowing that’s all he needs to get by these London yokels. One half-expects him to cock an eyebrow at the audience, Stephen Colbert-like, and smilingly admit to something completely brazen just to show he can get away with it.

Other delightful touches: The bottled spider, a real spider in a jar — if Leson is willing to pull off that little gotcha! stunt, he should have been more willing to go for the macabre straight off with Richard. And in Moreno’s seduction of Lady Anne, he drops his knife and — poor guy — can’t reach it from his chair. Gently, Anne hands it back to him. Moments later, after she’s gone, he drops it again — and casually swoops down and picks it up, as he always could. It’s a perfect demonstration of Richard using what was dismissed — his supposed weakness — as a weapon.

On the other hand, evidence for a lack of care in this production is screechingly plain in the way far too many performers yell their way through scenes without modulation. When the talented Christine Vela, for instance, who plays both Queen Margaret and Lady Anne, finally lowers her volume, her curses become much more effective, much more heart-sore.

Partly the yelling may have to do with this production’s other flaw: It is so highly truncated for speed (and for multi-casting — eight actors handle some 17 roles) that some characters and murders whirl by without much effect. This pocket-rocket Richard zooms. Anyone not thoroughly familiar with the family trees should read up in advance. I suspect that the high school and college students who’ll end up in the audience may find all the racing energy and booming music exciting but not understand much of anything by the second half.

Cutting Richard III for length is hardly a radical or unusual move; everyone does it. But Olivier recommended that if you’re going to do it, cut whole scenes, don’t trim speeches. Otherwise, the play becomes this rapid-fire, unintelligible recitation of names. Leson has done both, which may account for the blur. Sometimes, he has been clever enough — as in the use of cellphones (now standard-issue in Shakespeare productions) to deliver brief, one-sided versions of entire scenes or speeches.

Other times, we lose some real, death-knell impact — as in the extreme rapidity of the young princes’ deaths in the Tower. It’s characteristic of the strengths and weaknesses of the Kitchen Dog production that the entire Tyrell-hired-murderer subplot is pretty well gone, yet its main plot point is handled ingeniously (the offstage screams of the boys) — even as it all happens so fast you could cough and miss it.

The deaths of children, of course, are always beyond the pale in Shakespeare, a sign that things have finally gotten so bad that retribution is at hand. The play pivots on that point — think of Macduff’s murdered “pretty ones” and the revenge he seeks on Macbeth. In other words, however “justified” Richard’s killings may be made to seem because of his emotional wounds,  however compromised his later victims are, Shakespeare’s universe is a moral one that eventually, painfully sets itself right. We need to feel that ground shift, and we don’t here. Olivier’s film version may seem hokey to many these days (though it remains his most authentically chilling screen performance before Marathon Man). But he got at least that moment right. As his Richard approaches the throne — already planning to kill the princes — the camera and lighting angles are such that we see his shadow loom up and cover the throne before Olivier reaches it. A woman screams — as if to announce that our moral holiday is over.

Enough is enough. Something must be done. The psychopath has taken charge.