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  • OSF's 'Richard III' shines through a glass darkly humorous

  • The overarching thing about "Richard III" is the personality of Richard. The preposterously evil king, earlier known as Gloucester, dominates his play like perhaps no other character in Shakespeare.
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  • The overarching thing about "Richard III" is the personality of Richard. The preposterously evil king, earlier known as Gloucester, dominates his play like perhaps no other character in Shakespeare.
    The play, one of Shakespeare's earliest, lacks the complexity of the later tragedies, but it has Richard, the playwright's greatest creation up to then. Richard has more lines than any character in the canon except Hamlet.
    Richard lacks the complexity of the lead characters of the great tragedies, his main modes being limited to (a.) pursuing his bloody quest for the crown, and (b.) sharing with the audience his overweening amusement at his own astonishing amorality.
    Like Hamlet, Richard is subject to an amazing range of interpretations. Since Laurence Olivier's creepy, almost Satanic Richard, recent takes have included Ian McKellen's haughty fascist, Kevin Spacey's brazen outsider and Mark Rylance's withdrawn, self-loathing buffoon.
    In the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's new production of "Richard III," directed by James Bundy, Dan Donohue, decked out in a leg brace and a withered arm, plays the Crookback as being an orb or two short of a full set of crown jewels. In scene after scene, Donohue shades Richard to the lunatic side of plain narcissism, usually to darkly humorous effect.
    You don't expect this play to get this many laughs. In a funny bit on his brothers Edward, the king, and George, the Duke of Clarence, Richard represents his siblings with his fingers as if doing a bit of Plantagenet hand jive.
    When Lady Anne succumbs to the advances of this "poisonous bunch-backed toad" — never mind that he's killed her husband and her father-in-law — and he hoots to the audience, "Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" Donohue points to the audience in a sociopathic how-do-you-like-me-now moment, demanding our approval.
    Donohue does not, however, give Richard (that "elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog") the sexual heat the scene is sometimes suffused with.
    But actions such as giving us a pregnant look when he picks up the crown, going all pious on us as he thanks God for his humility(!) and, when Buckingham asks what's to be done about Hastings, barking, "Chop off his head, man," get big, knowing laughs.
    The scene in which Buckingham manipulates the Mayor into begging Richard to take the throne is very funny, with a giddy Richard feigning reluctance with a preening, false modesty worthy of Roger de Bris in the "Springtime for Hitler" number from "The Producers."
    The potential for all this is right there in the script. Richard, like many a Shakespeare character, and many a psychopath, plays false to all the other characters ("Why, I can smile, and murder while I smile") and reveals his true self only to the audience through soliloquies, asides and the knowing smiles Donohue flashes at us. These stop just short of — or maybe not — going meta-theater on us. It is a quirky, wickedly bravura performance.
    The production loses much of its juice, however, when Richard isn't up to some evildoing. It is even a bit murky at times. Kate Hurster's change of heart in Lady Anne's seduction is unconvincing. Anthony Heald's Buckingham comes off as a bit too much of a toady. Judith-Marie Bergen is a spitfire as Richard's mother, but the scene in which Elizabeth faces down Richard lacks impact.
    As is the rule in Shakespeare's history plays, the Grand-Guignol journey offers up neither the sunny laughs of the comedies nor the catharsis of the tragedies. Some audience members will struggle to keep all these royal and noble characters straight, and at a full three hours, this "Richard III" sometimes feels overlong.
    Richard Hay's set, the infrastructure capped with faux-pewter, phallic/martial finials, fairly exudes royal menace. Ilona Somogyi's gorgeous period costumes proclaim a time more than a century before Shakespeare's and are often contrasting bright spots on a stage otherwise draped in darkness.
    The OSF's new Meyer sound system, its speaker stacks festooning the stage here and there like a stripped-down rock venue, performs as advertised, bouncing sound around the Allen Elizabethan Theatre with a clarity that must be experienced. With the vigor and nuances of Shakespeare's language at the center of it all, this is a very big deal, and the system is a quantum leap.
    Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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