Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s great villains, a man of cunning and ruthless ambition who seems a perfect avatar for some very contemporary concerns in American society. After all, this is a man who manages to persuade the daughter of the man he has slain to marry him, who lies so convincingly that otherwise savvy men who thought themselves allies realize only too late they’ve been had, who stops at nothing (even taking up arms) to usurp a throne that is not rightfully his.
Alas, that’s not the Richard we see on the outdoor Delacorte stage for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. Instead, we get a muddled production from director Robert O’Hara that loses the plot — quite literally — in a noble effort to upend some of the Bard’s 17th-century biases.
The troubles start with Danai Gurira, the “Walking Dead” alum who struts about the stage as a fourth-wall-breaking villain for whom there seems to be no real obstacle to unadulterated success. The model-beautiful, Iowa-born actress nails both the poetry and the charisma of the role — though why she deploys a British accent is anybody’s guess. But while Richard is often famously played as a hunchback — ableism bias alert! — Gurira dispenses with any effort to suggest how or why the world might consider her Richard so “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up … that dogs bark at me.”
So how is Richard “deformed” exactly? After all, this Richard exists in a world in which he woos Anne (Ali Stroker) while she evades his advances in a wheelchair and gets upbraided by his mother (Monique Holt) in American Sign Language, which is occasionally delivered without either supertitles or onstage translation. (I pity Shakespeare newbies to work out what’s said from context alone.) Nor is Gurira the only Black performer on stage, joined by capable veterans like Daniel J. Watts as henchman Ratcliffe and the scene-stealing Sharon Washington as Queen Margaret.
O’Hara clearly has, to borrow one of Richard’s phrases, “deep intent” with his approach to the material, but he loses the plot — quite literally — in service to his efforts to address perceived shortcomings in Shakespeare’s text. It’s admirable to cast a production blind to the look and physical abilities of the performers — but a mixed-race production of August Wilson’s “Fences” would lose a good deal of its power. And while Richard’s physical affliction is not the cause or root of his villainy, it’s an aspect that he recognizes, feels deeply and sometimes exploits to his advantage because he is underestimated.
As a result, Gurira’s Richard emerges as even less sympathetic than he might be — more of a cartoon monster than a tragic figure of unchecked hubris. O’Hara’s production only seems to amplify this simplistic approach, from Dede Ayite’s “Spamalot”-lite costumes to the primary-color lighting (by Alex Jainchill) on Myung Hee Cho’s stylized industrial Erector Set design.