In Review

Richard III

2 out of 5 stars
2 out of 5 stars - 'Boohoo'
African-American Shakespeare Company
Taube Atrium Theater, San Francisco
Review by Ilana Walder-Biesanz

[Lead photo: left to right: Richard III (L. Peter CAllender) halts the funeral procession of Lady Anne’s husband (Brandi Huzzie) as the two clergymen (Terrance Smith and Devin Cunningham) tremble at this frightful killer.]

Shakespeare’s Richard III is sometimes classified as a history, sometimes as a tragedy. The political subject matter is historical. The plot is tragedy-like in its high drama and high body count. The play lacks a tragic hero, though. Instead, we get a tragic villain: the manipulative Duke of Gloucester (later, King Richard III). From his first famous line (“Now is the winter of our discontent…”) to his last (“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”), he murders and betrays to secure power. All this action should be gripping. Unfortunately, in the African-American Shakespeare Company’s current production, it falls flat.

Director Kirsten Brandt’s direction swings between modern and stylized. The tension between the two could be fruitful, but here it isn’t. The acting is inconsistent. Some characters declaim their monologues to the rafters; others make naturalistic choices and add comedic contemporary inflections. Small silly gestures – victory dances, high-fives – jar when they follow scenes delivered in heightened tones.

There was excellent acting talent on the stage. (It’s a shame it wasn’t put to better use.)

Brandt didn’t commit to clear vision. Her director’s notes tie Richard III to modern fake news and propaganda, a textually supported theme. Yet the “news conferences” in the show were few and indicated only by video feed and stiff smiles to the audience. The show also suffered from too-steady pacing. Murders, speeches, and plotting all got the same crisp delivery and weighty treatment. More aggressive cuts and shaping of the dramatic arc would have turned this from a collection of well-written, well-delivered lines into an exciting theatrical experience.

There was excellent acting talent on the stage. (It’s a shame it wasn’t put to better use.) Beli Sullivan wowed as Queen Margaret with the sheer power of her voice. I would not want to be on the receiving end of her curses! L. Peter Callender’s Richard carried the show, inviting us to root for him with sly asides and humorous reversals. This was presentational acting at its finest: charismatic, varied, and oversized. We were in on all Richard’s lies, because Callender signaled them loud and clear. (It took suspension of disbelief to credit that the victims of his plots didn’t also see such blatant duplicity.) Leontyne Mbele-Mbong was precisely the opposite as the Duke of Buckingham: unfailingly polished and professional. She was conciliatory towards all parties and kept her secrets. She seemed a more formidable plotter as a result.

Richard III at African-American Shakespeare Company, San Francisco - Review
Queen Margaret (Beli Sullivan) chastise Richard III (L. Peter Callender) with a prophecy to come.

The set, designed by Kevin August Landesman, featured a long, elevated runway with a sliding white projection canvas at the back. Brandt made good use of the resulting levels, without letting actors get trapped on the runway. The projections didn’t work. Flames and ghost heads looked tacky. Live video feed of speeches was annoyingly delayed. The other tech also disappointed, from the obtrusive background music to the lame fight choreography.

Photo credit: Lance Huntley

Ilana Walder-Biesanz
Ilana is an Associate Product Manager at Yahoo! and a freelance theater and opera critic. She holds a B.S. in Engineering from Olin College and an M.Phil. in European Literature from the University of Cambridge. She currently reviews for Stark Insider, Bachtrack, and San Francisco Classical Voice. [Web Site]