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Review: Action leads Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival

The company's staging of 'Richard III' and 'As You Like It' may emphasize plot over psychology, but the classics are still a lovely way to spend a summer night.

July 11, 2012|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • The cast of the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival production of William Shakespeare's "Richard III."
The cast of the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival production of William… (Henry DiRocco )

There are as many ways to reanimate Shakespeare onstage as there are methods of interpreting him on the page. Adrian Noble, artistic director of the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival and the former artistic director and chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company, seems to favor directorial strategies of a holistic nature.

Which is to say that there are no distracting concepts imposed on his production of "As You Like It" or Lindsay Posner's staging of "Richard III," the two Shakespeare offerings in the Old Globe's annual outdoor festival. (The American chestnut, "Inherit the Wind," is in repertory with them.)

The approach to these polar opposite classics by Shakespeare is essentially the same: heighten the theatricality and accelerate the suspense already pulsating in scenes.

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The upside to this manner is clarity. Shakespeare's plots are rendered with admirable lucidity. But "As You Like It" proves far more congenial to this sort of gentle rendering than the unwieldy "Richard III," which cries out for a firmer grasp.

In both cases, however, there's something else that's missing, and it's not directorial.

Scholar Harold Bloom argues in his book "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human" that the source of Shakespeare's originality lies in the complexity with which he rendered personality. And there can be no question that the longevity of his work redounds to the credit of his inward-looking characters, who are endlessly seeking to puzzle out the mystery of their natures and to rise to the challenge of their typically dire circumstances.

Actors are invited to inhabit these roles internally and externally. But the emphasis of these Old Globe productions is on the action rather than on the psychology. The acting is brisk but not always deeply resonant. Granted, it takes enormous experience for a performer to balance the logistical and emotional demands of Shakespeare, but that is the skill required to make a return visit to the plays memorable.

The defining feature of Jay Whittaker's portrayal of the physically deformed royal thug Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Shakespeare's bloody historical pageant, is the character's relative handsomeness. Yes, he has a brace and a shriveled hand, but he also has washboard abs and a youthful vitality that is sneakily appealing.

Perhaps to counteract this pleasant mien, Whittaker takes to truculent shouting whenever the moment threatens to turn murderous — a regular phenomenon in this corpse-strewn play. One of the great pleasures of seeing "Richard III" again is enjoying how an actor assembles the various aspects of the malevolent yet witty and strangely debonair protagonist into a coherent, or semi-coherent, whole.

In the opening soliloquy, Richard explains that since he "cannot prove a lover" because of his mangled looks, he is "determined to prove a villain." One never takes a character at his word in Shakespeare. Iago's evil, for example, transcends the rationales he proposes for it. But Richard's speech does provide some juicy material for an actor to play with. (Kevin Spacey, to name a recent example, had a campy field day with the part.)

Unfortunately, Whittaker gallops through the monologue as though it were a set piece. There's no sense that this dastardly character is revealing his mind to us, never mind his heart, which he is clearly devoid of.

This is in keeping with a production that treats the play more or less as a comic strip. Although performed in contemporary dress (costume designer Deirdre Clancy's choices are more suggestive than period specific) on a set by Ralph Funicello that is arrayed with political propaganda deifying Richard North Korea-style, the staging could hardly be more detached from reality.

Labeled a "history play," "Richard III" is squarely situated by Posner in a storybook realm. (In an American era of extreme partisan rancor, I was curious about whether there might be sickening parallels, but that would require a director with more auteur leanings.)

But if the politics and psychology are underserved, there are still flashes of dramatic excitement, such as the notorious seduction scene in which Richard somehow manages to woo Lady Anne (Viva Font) after making her a widow. The scene, thrillingly farfetched, is made believable through the theatrical conviction of the actors. Here and elsewhere in this production it is the trouper's overriding passion that sustains the evening's energy.

"As You Like It," to my mind the shrewdest play ever written about romantic love, is naturally a much more charming affair. And Noble's staging has a delicacy that can be quite affecting at times, even if it overplays its wintry effects. (Why is it that whenever a theater director wants to ratchet up the audience's emotion, he sprinkles some snowflakes on the set?)

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