Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Farewell, Richard.

Benjamin Curns in Henry VI, Part 3, 2011
 Photo by Tommy Thompson.
The third installment of “Better Know an Actor” is coming soon, in which I talk with the lovely Sarah Fallon about Margaret, Dido, and zombies. But before that, as the 2012 Actors’ Renaissance Season is coming to a close this week, I’d like to reflect a little bit on the production that changed my life: Richard III. The final show is this Thursday night, April 5, at the Blackfriars Playhouse.
            This show is kind of a big deal. It completes the tetralogy the ASC started in 2009. They staged all three parts of Henry VI, with much of the same cast reprising their roles throughout and doing some interesting doubling. Ben Curns, our believed hunchbacked Richard, played the good-hearted Humphrey in the Henry VI plays until that character dies a sad and innocent death. The next time we see him, it's as Richard, son of the Duke of York. The change is dramatic, startling, and beautiful; just one of the many things that makes the ASC and the ARS unique. We also got to follow Allison Glenzer as Lady Grey and eventual Queen of England, John Harrell as Edward IV, and Sarah Fallon as the vicious, visceral Margaret. If you saw all four plays, you know that this tetralogy has been something special, and the ending is bittersweet.
            If you didn’t see all those plays, however, you can still thoroughly enjoy this season’s production of Richard III. It is, in my mind, the definitive interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. The smooth and streamlined script, cut by Curns himself, keeps the action going apace without losing any of the moral ambiguity. The poetry is beautiful, without falling into some Marlovian quagmire of repetitive iambic pentameter droning. The actors’ understanding of the story translates immediately to the audience: you catch every word, and parts of the play that might have seemed opaque in other productions or on the page become vividly, transparently understandable.
Richard III opened soon after I first arrived in Staunton for my ASC internship. After seeing it for the first time, I excitedly called my parents to gush over “how great it was you guys oh my god you guys so good.” (Enthusiasm can render me somewhat ineloquent). They, partly convinced I was wasting my life as an unpaid intern at some (in their minds) random Shakespeare festival in Nowheresville, Virginia, decided to come down and see what was so special about this play for themselves. They’ve seen and read Richard III and are generally familiar with Shakespeare, but not so much with the Blackfriars Playhouse or our original staging conditions. It was new for them, and they were clearly basing their opinions on my life choices on their thoughts of this one production. It was risky for me. What if they didn’t like it?
            I’m just kidding. That thought never crossed my mind. I was a giddy mess throughout their whole visit because I was so excited to share this Richard III with the people I love. It’s one of those things: like a joke you just learned that you really want to tell everybody, but it’s so funny you can’t stop laughing long enough to get the words out. You can see (though that awareness never distracts from the production itself) just how brilliant, innovative, and hardworking every single member of the company must be. The whole play screams, “This is a well-oiled machine!” Actors create standout performances when the play calls for them to do so – Aidan O’Reilly, as Clarence, delivers his dream speech so compellingly that it gives me tunnel vision, and Rene Thornton, Jr. raises one hell of a holy descant as Buckingham – and return to the background when necessary as easily as fitting the pieces together in a twelve-piece puzzle. But, ultimately, it is Richard’s play. And that’s where Ben Curns comes in.
            I would like to point out that it is absolutely mind-boggling that Curns is playing both Richard and Benedick (in Much Ado about Nothing) this season. Sometimes he’d do a matinee of Much Ado, then an evening performance of Richard III, and be brilliant in both. He's either exceptionally talented or dangerously schizophrenic, but whatever, it works. His Benedick is lovely: funny, witty, sympathetic, and deep. But his Richard is something else.
Allison Glenzer as Queen Elizabeth and Benjamin Curns as Richard in Richard III.
Photo by Tommy Thompson
            As an ASC intern, I am in the enviable position of being able to see as many of the productions as my little theater-loving heart can handle. I have seen Richard III five or six times, from every vantage point in the Blackfriars Playhouse: gallant stool, front row center, both sides of the balcony, the back row of the first level. While watching things over and over is not new for me (I think I watched The Dark Knight every day for a year when it came out on DVD), theater is obviously different from film, and I hungrily devour the nuanced performances that change, slightly, every night. The plot doesn’t change, and the overarching design of the characters stands firm, but the actors tweak words, drop gestures, stress different syllables. Every member of the company does it, but Curns is a master. He lives Richard in every single moment. He is never taking on an assumed identity, never playing at Richard but actually going on this journey with us every single night. The Blackfriars Playhouse prides itself on the audience contact that comes out of using Shakespeare’s original staging conditions, so as the audience changes with each performance, so does Richard. If we have found Richard’s successful wooing of Lady Anne to be both creepy and funny, he singsongs his, “But I will not keep her long!” to keep us there with him. If we have found it disgusting, he drops his voice and lands each syllable. Curns is extremely adept at gauging his audience – probably because he’s made the audience the most important part of his performance.
            His Richard has no private persona. He has two public faces: the one he puts on for the other characters in the play and the one he puts on for us. He is a showman who needs and craves and loves his audience. In the famous opening speech, Curns triumphantly proclaims to other cast members onstage that “now is the winter of our discontent / made glorious summer by this son of York” as he sends them off one by one, with applause and accolades. But when they are gone, he switches, and turns to us. From that moment on, we are his only constant ally. He seeks our approval, revels in our disgust, and soaks up any admiration we manage to muster. Curns speaks to us conspiratorially, as if we are in on Richard’s plot, or some integral part of it, though we remain constantly aware that what he is doing is repugnant to us.
In the Richard III Actor-Scholar council, Curns talks about prepping for Richard by studying serial killers and thinking about Richard’s relationship to his parents: his father, constantly telling him that he is special and destined to be great, and his mother, constantly cursing his birth and him. That mixture of overwhelming superiority and crushing inferiority turn Richard into this strangely relatable monster who unconsciously believes that becoming king will fix all of his problems, both physical and emotional. And when he does finally take the crown, the moment is epic: the band strikes up some bragging, brassy trumpets, and Richard enters bedecked in the richest form of every single status signifier there is  – crown, scepter, cape – and approaches the throne he touched so longingly at the end of 3 Henry VI. Richard climbs into it with the help of Buckingham and then turns to us: “Thus high, by thy advice / And thy assistance, is King Richard seated!” He draws out the last three words triumphantly as he sits, there is a moment of silence and then, fidgeting, Richard realizes (as we do) that the chair has changed nothing, that he is still a lump of foul deformity, that his mother still hates him and his father is still dead.
Nowhere is this pitiful complexity more evident, of course, than in Richard’s final soliloquy. It’s strange on the page and often jarringly out of character on the stage, but not this time. Firstly, Curns’s Richard has known this is coming, because he’s already known that he is doing and has done terrible things and that ultimately there will be consequences. Sixthly, as throughout the play, Richard is talking to us and not to himself. Third and lastly, he is asking for our forgiveness as well as his own and, most nights, we don’t give it to him. To conclude: he has to pay.
I feel sorry for him. I can’t help it. He says, “All several sins, all used in each degree / Throng to the bar, crying all…” and he stops, his eyes go wide as if he can see not only the ghosts of those he has murdered, but also the corporeal form of all the pain he’s caused. Half out of remorse, but half out of fear of what will come when he is finally slain and goes, like Clarence in his dream, to the reckoning, he croaks out: “guilty.”
Oh, and my parents loved it.

--Lia Razak

No comments:

Post a Comment