Saturday, September 27, 2014

OSF: Richard III

We've been looking forward to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Richard III all year, and especially Dan Donohue's turn in the titular role, and we were not disappointed. Richard III was the high point of our first time here ten seasons ago, and we enjoyed seeing another interpretation.

In this production directed by James Bundy, Richard is a comedian; and I absolutely mean this as a compliment. He sees into and through the dark humor of court politics. Just as a comedian sometimes skewers his audience, Richard skewers those around him, and channels his hostility into a deadpan "can you believe this guy?" and "I can't believe I got away with that" incredulity. He mugs for the audience in his constant asides, and drew more laughs than one or two of the comedies we saw here. Something was niggling at me through most of the first half of the play, and at one point shortly after intermission, some combination of gesture, mannerism, a set of Donohue's jaw, and a particularly meaningful look at the audience, and it came to me in a flash: it was as though he was channeling the brilliant Robin Williams. Of course, this was Donohue's show, and he was riveting. I wouldn't have missed a single turn of phrase and gesture. He held us in the very palm of his withered hand.

Dan Donohue as Richard III. OSF photo.
Most of the women in this production turned up the heat on Richard with sparkling performances. Robin Goodrin Nordli might just be the best Queen Elizabeth I've seen across four productions, three of which were very good (this one, OSF 2005, and GreenStage 2007; Intiman's 2006 directed by Bartlett Sher was completely forgettable). Nordli absolutely nailed the scene where Richard courts her daughter, fooling him but not us, and obviously having no intention whatsoever to give her to him. Judith-Marie Bergan was blistering as Richard's mother. And they didn't get fancy with Queen Margaret, making her all sepulchral or anything. She was played with straightforward venom by Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Tess Hemmerling just about made off with the show as Richard's younger nephew, the Duke of York.

I appreciated the restraint in the set designed by Richard L. Hay. There are very few places where you can see theater outdoors in the tradition of a stage that is shaped the way the Elizabethan is, with its multiple levels, pillars, trapdoor, thrust configuration, and, instead of a backdrop, entrances and exits upstage rather than (just) the wings. The design of the theatre causes the actors to interact differently with each other and with the audience than in a proscenium arch theatre, where the actors are little figures in a diorama. It's not so much that Shakespeare was breaking the "fourth wall" all the time—and never more than in Richard III—as that there was no fourth wall then.

Actors, directors, and designers often don't seem to know how to do theater outside. And to be fair, why should they have that training, since there will be so few opportunities to work outdoors. Which is a bummer for people like me who have seen how wonderful really good outdoor theater can be.

One of the consequences of the lack of training for the outdoor theater is that OSF finally capitulated and installed a fancy schmancy sound system in the Lizzie, a development we were not looking forward to. Based on Richard III, we were relieved. It could have been a lot worse. The amplification was subtle and skillful. Spoken lines still sounded like they were coming from the actor's location on stage, and they wisely refrained from playing around with all the bells and whistles I'm sure the system gives them, only getting woo-woo during the ghost dream scene.

Two Gents a few days later proved that amplification isn't enough if the actors don't have the skills to be clear. Several of the younger cast, though miked, were difficult to understand. Most of the principal actors in Richard III have played that stage for many years and know what they're doing, so they were easy to understand. They created characters and scenes and drama and told a thrilling story, not with technology, but with their voices and bodies and skill; and for that: bravo.


KellyAllen206 said...

Thanks for sharing this! Great observations and i know what you mean about sound systems. They can be so terrible. Glad to hear things are good. Glad that you LOVED DD.

KellyAllen206 said...

How was Into the Woods?

Sweetie the Official Scorer said...

Yeah, DD was amazing! Into the Woods was the only play showing that we did not see. Musicals sometimes fall off the list when we can't quite squeeze all the plays in! But we heard from other folks down there that it was great. I was intrigued by their approach to having a live orchestra with both adults and kids in it.