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The Bard

Richard III Directed by Andre Ernotte At the American Shakespeare Theater

By Caldwell Titcomb

STRATFORD, Conn.--Among Shakespeare's plays, Richard III ranks second only to Hamlet in the total number of lines, in the size of the title role, and in its appeal to actors and producers over the centuries. The bloody monster who murdered his way to the throne (a notoriously inaccurate historical portrait) has over the years engaged the talents of several women, boys in their early teens, and even little Ellen Bateman, who began acting the role professionally when she was four.

No other work in the canon shows more formally patterned structure and diction. Yet in this apprentice play Shakespeare wrote with unsurpassed gusto, letting the lines pour forth in torrents and saying things in several ways instead of choosing the best. The result was a ripsnorting melodrama that offered Elizabethas what horror movies provide us today. Richard III lacks the subtlety, artistry and development that we see in his nearest relatives, Macbeth and logo. And the whole play moves straightforwardly, putting few difficulties in our way except for a confusing genealogy.

The American Shakespeare Theatre, whose 1964 Richard III (with Douglas Watson in the lead) remains one of the better productions in its history, has dusted off the work as the sole celebration of its silver anniversary. As cut and directed by Andre Ernotte, this version has a running-time of two hours and 40 minutes. The current Richard is Michael Moriart, the 39-year-old actor who dazzled us with his Broadway performance in Find Your Way Home six years ago and copped the top Tony Award for his efforts.

In a second encounter with the role, Moriarty gives us an odd but consistently fascinating Richard, placed in the Napoleonic era. As written, Richard is not so much a role as a collection of roles. For, except in his soliloquies, Richard is ever the actor, putting on one false face after another. Moroiarty's performance is too much on an even level, without emotional highs and lows.

He gives us plenty of highs and lows, in another sense, however. He seems to have taken a cue from Bernard Shaw, who emphasized the crucial importance of the play's word-music: "It is not enough to see Richard III: you should be able to Whistly it." In his speech, Moriarty covers a wide pitch range, and repeatedly resorts actually to singing his lines, at one point using falsetto to ascend to soprano F. Near the end he takes one line, "Why love forswore me in my mother's womb" (borrowed from the third Henry VI play and sings it over and over as a musical refrain.

This Richard is not only fond of song but also of instrumental music. In one amusing scene, he insists on having a string quartet brought in to play the scherzo from Beethoven's Op. 131; we hear the music on tape, but the musicians use real bows to play on imaginary instruments. Elsewhere, Richard will not allow discourse to proceed until a keyboard piece has concluded, or until a trio of dancers has finished its ballet.

Richard also loves dressing up to different costumes, whether a severe coat or bright red cape. When he hankers for the throne but pretends piously to reject sit, he finally takes off a dun-colored clerical cassock and turns it inside out to reveal--hilariously--an instantaneous royal-purple velvet gown.

All this variety, however, cannot conceal that Moriarty's Richard (with the physical deformities downplayed) is essentially a rather weak adolescent for whom the world is little more than a plaything people by toy dolls. Indeed, in several of the scenes in which he does not figure, Moriarty remains quietly on stage left, observing the game as it is played out. But there are times when Richard should convey a demanic drive, should impress us with a larger-than-life size. Instead, we have a chap who becomes nauseated on seeing Hastings' severed head; who, on speaking the famous line, "Off with his head--so much for Buckingham" (written not by Shakespeare but harmlessly interpolated by Cibber in 1700), underlines the second half by kicking an imaginary rugby ball.

WWHETHER ONE APPROVES of Moriarty or not, one can't help admire him. He does exactly what he intends to do, and always with skill. Make no mistake: he is enormously gifted, with technique to burn, and clearly capable of carrying out his director's demands. With his mostly Scandinavian ancestry (despite his name), Moriarty should not wait much longer before he tackles Hamlet.

We tend to accustom ourselves to Shakespeare played by actors in their fifties and sixties. It is a pleasure to report that this Richard III employs many performers who look young, for the play is largely about people under the age of 30. Nearly half of the company assembled by Ernotte and his star have recently acted with Moriarty or are members of the Potter's Field troupe founded by Moriarty three years ago.

The players supporting Richard vary widely in quality. The Lady Anne of Denise Bessette is strident and amateurish. Georgine Hall's Duchess of York is only adequate, but Robin Bartlett's Queen Elizabeth is clear and convincing work.

The historical Margaret died in France even before Richard because king. But Shakespeare brought her into the play with the fourth-largest role. Directors often omit Margaret entirely, as Olivier did in his overpraised film version; but she adds much, in her two substantial scenes, functioning as a sort of combined Cassandra and avenging Fury. Since Margaret is a half-supernatural character, it made sense to cast her here with a foreign-born actress. Viveca Lindfors looks wonderful with her disheveled hair, but the vestiges of a Swedish accent along with a tendency to swallow words make much of her cursing unintelligible.

Burke Pearson Speaks his Edward IV so dreadfully that one is thankful Shakespeare let the king die after one scene. Philip Casnoff makes a properly youthful Clarence, through there is more poetry in his long Dream than he has yet discovered. In the play's second-largest part, the Duke of Buckingham, David Huffman speaks admirably, with only an occasional violation of the meter; he is especially good in the scene with Richard as Mock-Monk. Tyrrel is not a large role, but Richard Seer brings sly subtlety to his inflections, looks and gait, and comes up with a real gem of a performance.

Into a cast of major and minor sinners strides Richmond in the fifth act, as a model of saintly sanity (again inaccurate history on the playwright's part). From what he has to do in the role it is impossible to gauge the acting ability of Michael O'Hare, but he does possess a warm and beautiful voice. His main function is to fight Richard to the death. So we have Moriarty, Dartmouth '63, pitted against O'Hare, Harvard '74. After too brief a bit of swordplay, Harvard wins and will ascend the throne as Henry VII.

Here, Ernotte has invented a little epilogue, with a leap forward in time, as Shaw did in Saint Joan. Richard, wearing a modern gray (Nazi?) overcoat and a pair of spectacles, appears over the horizon and slowly walks downstage. The slain Catesby starts to resurrect from the dead, and there is a sudden complete blackout. Richard, against all tradition, has the first word in this play; must be also have the last?

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