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Theatre in Review: Richard III (Druid/Gerald W. Lynch Theater)

Aaron Monaghan, Emma Dargan-Reid, Bosco Hogan. Photo: Richard Termine.

In a strange accident of casting, in his 2008 New York debut, Aaron Monaghan starred as the title character of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan. Eleven years later, he is back as crookback Richard, the physically and mentally maimed title character of Shakespeare's tragedy. (The production is part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival.) That's where the resemblance ends, however: Billy, McDonagh's character, is a passive, almost saint-like figure, more sinned against than sinning. None of these words apply to Richard -- who murders his way to the throne of England; in Monaghan's interpretation, he is a startlingly original villain, an expert seducer whose first conquest is the audience. Taking a leaf from the text, which describes him as "that bottled spider," he is an eerily insect-like creature, his twisted frame and knock-kneed stance supported by a pair of crutches; his walk is rather like a multi-legged crawl. Yet for all his physical devastation, he is oddly cheerful -- chipper, really -- even when plotting the most nefarious deeds. Describing the "weak, piping time of peace" that pervades England following the Wars of the Roses, and noting his plans to turn his brothers against each other -- the first of his bloody stratagems -- he is positively bright-eyed, his voice operating like a pennywhistle as it runs up and down the scale; registering his pleased astonishment at the gullibility of the world, his voice almost breaks, like an adolescent. This Richard is sly scamp and calculating fiend rolled into one; he'll cut your throat while paying his respects, and he isn't happy unless we're cheering him on.

Monaghan's Richard is a figure of black comedy, at times almost farcical in his dubious dealings: Putting on a furious emotional display, he gives us a look that seems to say, Wasn't that good? Assuming a devout stance for the consumption of others, he poses against a pair of scarecrows dressed as clerics, discreetly righting the prayer book that he has been accidentally holding upside down. Wooing the all-too-recently widowed Lady Anne with all the fervor and fury of a nineteenth-century matinee idol, he waits for her to exit, dazed by his ardor, then coldly dumps her husband's body. But as he stoops to new levels of depravity, his essentially feral nature takes over: Elizabeth, the queen, horrified at his plan to marry her daughter, gasps, "But thou didst kill my children." Monaghan's reading of one of drama's most brazen justifications ("But in your daughter's womb I bury them/Where in the nest of spicery they shall breed/Selves of themselves, to your recomforture") fills the room with the scent of brimstone. As his reign collapses into a stew of rebellion, he seems to implode physically, until, on the battlefield, his famous cry ("My kingdom for a horse") sounds like the howl of a wounded, yet still deadly, animal. Richard is a devilish puzzle of a character -- made too evil too soon, he becomes repellent, and you soft-pedal him at your peril -- and Monaghan dexterously balances a glittering malice with a callousness that remains stunning throughout.

Obviously, no Richard III succeeds without a great Richard, but in the wrong directorial hands, the play can devolve into a demolition derby in which one character after another is picked off. Garry Hynes' staging has a fine appreciation of the unhealed wounds lying underneath England's seemingly placid exterior, all of which are ripe for manipulation by a pretender to the throne. Her staging is filled with fresh, original touches that bring new ideas to a play that you may think you know too well. Lady Anne enters, dragging her husband's corpse on the extended train of her gown, a potent visual expression of her grief. Richard's wooing of Anne makes sense here in a way that it rarely does; for all his emotional display, his hold on her seems oddly provisional. His postmortem on his efforts ("Was ever woman in this humour woo'd? Was ever woman in this humour won?") sounds like an acknowledgment that he has more work to do. Margaret, widow of the late Henry VI and the embittered matriarch of the house of Lancaster, appears in white layers that bring to mind Miss Havisham; she haunts the stage, a wraith offering stark prophecies. The many killings are remorseless, like Mafia whack jobs, with the victims brutally dispatched into a downstage grave. When Richard gives the order to spread the word that Anne -- who is standing only a few feet away -- is ailing, a henchman drags the poor woman offstage like a sack of potatoes.

Aside from Monaghan, the evening's other standout performance is Marie Mullen, relishing every poisonous syllable of Margaret's curses against Richard while doubling as the Lord Mayor of London, who is duped into supporting Richard's claim on the throne. Garrett Lombard is especially chilling as Tyrrel, the assassin of the princes locked in the Tower of London. Rory Nolan is solid as Buckingham, Richard's partner in crime, who develops a conscience rather too late. Marty Rea's monosyllabic Catesby is a chilling figure, using a cattle gun to knock off his designated victims. Siobhán Cullen finds a strange logic in Anne's willingness to hear out Richard's false words of love. Frank Blake is a powerful presence as Dorset and, later, Richmond, engaging with Monaghan in a thrilling climactic sword battle choreographed by David Bolger.

Occasionally, Hynes' direction -- especially in the first half -- is a little too measured, and a few performances are underplayed to the point of enervation. This is especially true of Ingrid Craigie as the Duchess of York and Jane Brennan as Queen Elizabeth, neither of whom rises to the heights of indignation their characters would seem to demand. Then again, they are not aided by the costume designs of Francis O'Connor, whose overall vision -- balancing leather kilts and bowler hats -- can be a little baffling. Elizabeth, outfitted in yards of gold lamé, with the stiffest of collars and a skullcap looks rather like Madame Morrible in Wicked. (Both the Duchess and Elizabeth are overdressed and underplayed.) In the battle scenes, one wonders why Richard sports gloves that sparkle like diamonds and Richmond has a red cape that fairly drips with red sequins; Bosworth Field isn't a disco, after all.

Still, O'Connor's set, a brushed-aluminum box (with matching proscenium) outfitted with doors that open to admit armies and/or provide hiding places for intriguers, is a useful, flexible concept -- especially the high, barred windows that open to create a kind of prison effect. Note, too, the skull that hovers above the stage, much of the time bearing the dead King Edward's crown; in one delectably macabre moment, Richard reaches for it, but must climb on Buckingham's shoulders to grasp it. (Another inventive touch is the arrangement of illuminated tubes used to form the outlines of tents on the field of battle.) James F. Ingalls' lighting strikes the right clinical tone; I especially liked the shift of light, shooting in through a fan embedded in the wall, which appears whenever Catesby is about to rub out another life. Gregory Clarke's sound design provides fine reinforcement for Conor Linehan's score, filled with taut strings and pounding percussion.

Still, much of this Richard III's power is due to Monaghan, who wins us over and makes us his appalled accomplices. As Richard so memorably notes, "But I am/So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin: Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye." Nor in ours, I venture; we have fallen too thoroughly under his infernal spell. -- David Barbour

(13 November 2019)

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