by William Shakespeare
Directed by David Watson
for Capital Classics on the grounds of St. Joseph College in West Hartford through August 14
There is much debate as to whether or not the conniving Richard III at the center of Shakespeare's history play is an accurate depiction of the 16th Century British monarch or if it is a dramatic fiction that has given the king a bad name. What is not up for debate is whether or not the original Tricky Dick is one of the Bard of Avon's most evil creations. His deformed soul is made manifest by his deformed body, making him "that bottled spider, that foul bunch-back'd toad."
As drawn by Shakespeare, Richard is a blood-soaked villain so consumed by ambition that he forgoes all morality to achieve his ends. Similarly, a theatrical company that tackles Richard III needs king-sized ambitions to wrestle this complicated play into submission. Capital Classics celebrates its 20th anniversary with an outdoor summer production on the campus of St. Joseph College in West Hartford. So is the troupe up to the task? They wage battle mightily and in this final chapter of the War of the Roses, there are winners and there are losers.
At the center of the web is, of course, the bottled spider himself. Company founder and experienced Shakespeare veteran Geoffrey Sheehan is ill at ease in his interpretation of Richard. Although displaying a command of the language, Sheehan's approach from the outset is schizophrenic. At turns jolly and then blood-thirsty, his Richard shifts gears from scene to scene thereby robbing the anti-hero of a sense of coherence. Indeed, the grasping, power-hungry Duke of Gloucester (Richard's title before ascending to the throne) is two-faced, but played properly, there should always be an air of danger and sleaze about a man who would murder children and marry the daughters of his victims. Sheehan vacillates between full-throttle malevolence and someone you wouldn't mind joining for a pint. His performance is unflagging in its energy and enthusiasm, but the playfulness that he teases out of Richard undermines the charcoal-black heart at the king's center. When Sheehan digs down to the evil core, he finds and holds the center of the play.
The other half of "The Lunts of Hartford," Laura Sheehan is a more comfortable fit for the tragic role of Queen Elizabeth. Her furious and fraught performance as the mother of the true heirs to the throne finds Laura Sheehan commanding the playing space. Elizabeth's extended verbal sparring with Richard in Act IV, Scene IV finds the dueling Sheehans bringing out the best in one another. Queen Margaret, the now-deposed widow, also arrives to joust with Richard and the other court villains who have wronged her. As portrayed by local favorite Debra Walsh, Margaret is a wide-eyed, teeth-clenching harridan who spits her curses at those who would not capitulate to her demands. Rendered a bellowing crazy woman, the prophetess who rains doom on a goodly number of the cast is a bit overdone when a more subtle menace would have effectively scared the pumpkin breeches off the assembled lords of England.
The rest of the cast is fairly evenly divided between strong performances and weak. Gabi Van Horn excels as the unfortunate Lady Anne. David Regan's Lord Buckingham is rather flatly drawn, undercutting the double-crossing schemer's potency. Seth Koproski's late-in-the-game arrival as the Earl of Richmond is a welcome one. The recent UConn grad already exhibits an ease on stage and speaks effectively. James Curley makes a wonderful enfeebled King Edward IV and Archbishop of York. Charles Schoenfeld renders the Duke of Clarence as a bit of a milquetoast and later turns the murderous Sir Tyrell into a reticent killer. Ensemble members Gregoire Mouning (Lord Stanley), Ben Cole (Sir Catesby), John Samela (Lord Rivers) and Wil Moses (Sir Ratcliffe) all acquit themselves splendidly in their various roles. A special nod to the Sheehan children - Jackson and Kiera - for their well-calibrated performances in their juvenile roles. They promise to continue the family's love of Shakespeare for years to come.
Directed by David Watson, the play moves swiftly, even at 2 ½ hours in length (it has been edited by Mr. Sheehan). Watson uses the in-the-round setting to maximum effect and only falters in how some of the performances were directed. A particularly odd example: when the amassed citizens of England congregate to hear Richard III's case for kingship, they look like a pack of nose-picking dolts causing one to wonder why anyone would want to be their leader. One can hardly blame Queen Margaret for wanting to decamp to Paris.