Remarkably, this gem of a show was not supposed to happen. The Seattle Shakespeare Company had no plans for a Richard III after they had completed re-imagining the Bard’s Henry VI trilogy in last year’s Bring Down the House. Yet, the overwhelming momentum engendered by the strength of that production, in particular the outstanding work of Sarah Harlett as young Richard, convinced Artistic Director George Mount and the upstart crow collective to create a sequel. Lucky Seattle! This powerful Richard III is a major highlight for our fall theater season.
Director Rosa Josi is on an impressive hot streak, coming fresh off of her success of Henry V at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to now head-up this remarkable production. She has enlivened these two history plays with a tangible vitality enabling them to become very accessible. Admittedly she has two mighty talented actors with whom to work, Daniel Jose Molina in Ashland and Harlett here. But the flat out quality of both of these productions is astonishing. Each scene of Richard III seamlessly connects to the next; successfully weaving the frightening web Richard creates with Machiavellian glee.
It is nearly impossible for the audience not to become enamored with this eerily charismatic villain portrayed by Harlett, as he runs roughshod through England’s palaces, conniving and scheming on his path to the throne. When late in the play he claims
My conscience hath a thousand several tongues
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.
we understand exactly what he means. Richard has made good on his initial self-description from his opening monologue. He is indeed “subtle, false and treacherous.” And like his fellow villain Iago from Othello, he is always the smartest character in the room! We have witnessed him scrabble all the way to his country’s highest ranking, never pausing to reflect on the morality of any of his actions. The production presents his harrowing journey in a thrilling and fast-paced evening that never fails to maintain the inherent tensions between the stunned courtiers and their sinister new leader so expertly brought to life by Harlett.
The wonderfully talented upstart crow collective fills the stage with a bevy of talented actresses for Harlett to work with. As Buckingham, Suzanne Bouchard offers a focused and calm grace portraying Richard’s one time partner, turned opponent by night’s end. Chantal De Groat brings a lively energy to her portrayal of Richard’s rival, Hastings. Betsy Schwartz ably takes on the role of Elizabeth who suffers the most under the murderous Richard, losing both her sons in the Towers of London. The immensely talented Mari Nelson makes for a horrific henchman while also playing Richard’s anguished mother. And Porscha Shaw does a great job playing both Richard’s reluctant wife Anne and his immediate foil, the noble Richmond.
Production values for the show are stellar throughout. Shawn Ketchum Johnson has designed a set filled with unsettling angled blocks and wires running from the stage to the rafters. Sound designers Meghan Roche and Robertson Witmer turn these wires into percussive string instruments, often accenting the plot’s actions. Lighting Designer Geoff Korf fills the stage with eerie spotlights often flashed on Richard when he shares his plans with the audience. Christine Tschirgi has the cast wearing mostly black costumes; the program notes she blends “the aesthetics of twentieth century authoritarian regimes with medieval elements.” This approach helps underline one of the show’s themes: fears that a society may have to toil under the yoke of an amoral leadership are just as relevant today as they were in the ruthless Richard’s era. Seattle Shakespeare has the full package here, offering a mesmerizing night of theater.
Richard III runs at the Leo K. Theatre in the Seattle Repertory complex in the Seattle Center through October 7. For more ticket information go to www. Seattleshakespeare. org. or call 206-733-8222.