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The Winter Of Our Discontent

June 4, 2007

There's nothing quite like attending a production of Richard III in freezing fog to make you glad you don't live in the Dark Ages. The temperature plummeted throughout the opening night performance of California Shakespeare Theatre's new production of Shakespeare's history play directed by Mark Rucker on Saturday evening.

Cal Shakes' productions all take place in a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre in Orinda where the view, the wine, and the cameraderie usually more than make up for grey skies. But for the first time in my history of attending shows at the venue, I was frozen to the bone. By intermission, I was wearing two padded jackets, two blankets, a hat and gloves. And my wine was nicely chilled. But Reg Rogers' madcap performance as the malignant king unpredictably defied the ice.

Richard III is a nasty piece of work. He usually makes our blood run cold. But Rogers plays up the character's zany side, turning him into a bitter clown rather than a straightforward devil. Rogers treats his character's every monologue as a vent for private glee. He chuckles like a child. The entire right side of his body is palsied -- his right arm is a withered root. But he looks like he picked up his weird, hiccuping gait at Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. It's more of a skip than a stride.

Many actors who play the role look for the comedy in the character. The last Richard I saw, a cross-dressed Katherine Hunter's at the Globe in London several years ago, was witty and grotesque. However, Rogers' Richard finds the business of bumping off his peers more fun than most. It's like something to do while playing hooky from school. It's not for nothing that Rogers' bears a startling resemblance to Judd Nelson's John Bender -- the prankster rebel in John Hughes' 1985 teen movie, The Breakfast Club.

The childishness of the actor's approach to the character is particularly striking -- a source for both laughter and disgust. He's able to manipulate those around him because he puts on an act and plays the fool. People are duped into thinking he's harmless. And Richard can't believe that they buy his shtick. But the decision to infantilize Richard, to turn him into an arrogant, japing schoolboy, doesn't always come off. The wooing scene with Anne over her dead husband's coffin is particularly problematic. The characters exchange one-liners like they're whacking a ball at a tennis match with the coffin as the net. We're in no doubt that this is nothing more than a jolly way to create more mischief for Richard. But Anne appears confused and we're left with no other option than to think she's mad. I just don't buy this romance.

Then again, the production seems to be all about the artificiality of human emotion. The stage is covered with naked light-bulbs and rows of tinny-looking stage lights. The "glorious summer" of the opening line is, after all, nothing more than an empty dream created by an arch manipulator and the souls who desperately want to believe that the light is warm and real.

Certainly, as I limped freezing to the parking lot when it was all over, I felt like I had had more than my fair share of the cold and dark for one evening. I wonder how the production will play on a warm and balmy night?

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