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Theater Review: "King Richard III" at Shakespeare Festival

(c) New York Times

July 15, 1983



By Frank Rich

IN his first major venture into Shakespeare, Kevin Kline proves - and it's no surprise - that he could become one of the best classical actors of his generation. As Richard III, he must contend with a hump and the second longest role (after Hamlet) in the canon, but his athletic grace is unflagging and his command of the verse is sure. The performance is not, however, a success - and neither is the New York Shakespeare Festival production that surrounds him at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Mr. Kline is very smart - his director, Jane Howell, rather less so - and, in the course of a long and erratic evening, Shakespeare outwits them both.

What makes the character of Richard III irresistible to actors, of course, is that this archetypal antihero is himself the consummate actor. In his merciless, Machiavellian pursuit of power, he'll play any role required to get what he wants: the tender lover, the injured innocent, the selfless defender of faith and justice. He is a genius - a comic genius - at disguising his black heart from most of the fools around him; he manipulates friend and foe alike like puppets. But, for all the various poses, Richard's twisted soul is as surely as much a part of him as his deformed posture. It is Mr. Kline's devilish assignment that he assume the usurper's false guises as wittily as possible while simultaneously conveying the Satanic spirit underneath.

The actor performs the first half of the task with charismatic authority. Whether he is wooing Lady Anne over a corpse or shedding crocodile tears over his other murder victims or hoodwinking the Lord Mayor of London's delegation by striking a prayerful attitude, Mr. Kline makes farcical art out of outrageous wickedness. He does limping jigs of glee around his prey; he punctuates his victories with the patented double-takes of his other pirate king. There are some big, gruesome laughs in this play, and Mr. Kline may well snare all of them. When he juggles a crucifix as well as a prayer book in his display of false piety, the actor even adds a worthwhile gag of his own.

But if Richard is a villain of bracingly ironic intelligence whom we love to hate, we still must hate him. He is, after all, a totalitarian butcher - not just a bottled spider, but a frightening scorpion who kills. Mr. Kline demonstrated in "Sophie's Choice" that he is abundantly capable of conveying psychotic malevolence, but that element is too often missing in his Richard. In fact, pure malice only turns up twice - in the sudden demand for Hastings's head and, most effectively, in the dismissal of Buckingham. Mr. Kline's ghoulish "I am not in the giving vein today" is nearly as chilling as Laurence Olivier's.

Yet this isn't enough. Shakespeare insists that an actor lace the entire performance with venom, even when the text makes it seem impossible to do so. Otherwise we don't see any connection between the horrible events of the story and the central figure who is orchestrating them. All too early in this "King Richard III," it's clear that the link is broken: we just don't believe that Mr. Kline's jaunty Richard has plotted the graphically depicted execution of Clarence.

And the more comically inventive Mr. Kline's performance becomes, the more the underpinnings of the role slip away. By the time we get to his one introspective soliloquy ("My conscience hath a thousand several tongues"), we feel there's no self there to be revealed. Mr. Kline's reading of the speech is curiously blank and empty - neither comic nor tragic. As during much of the evening's second half, he seems to be propelled by the cadences of his rhetoric alone.

Because Mr. Kline clearly has the ability to give us a fully rounded Richard, one must wonder if a stronger director might have helped him realize it. Judging from the rest of the production, Miss Howell seems less than an inspiring leader. Using a nearly full version of the text - four hours' worth - she often seems to take the attitude that Shakespeare's fast-paced melodrama will take care of itself. It doesn't when the action is riddled with stage waits and pauses -even when we reach the battles of Bosworth Field - and when the extras (whether crowds or battalions) stand around like statues. While Miss Howell comes from England, this "Richard III" is at times redolent of Stratford, Conn.

She does have a concept of sorts. The set - well designed by Santo Loquasto and lighted by Pat Collins -gives us a disintegrating, dilapidated England: it's a representation of the venal, war-torn society that would produce a leader like Richard. Lest we miss the point, the play concludes with the prophetess Margaret cackling fiendishly at Shakespeare's hopeful ending to remind us that history can and has repeated itself. It's the director's only major embellishment -and a tacky, unearned one - in an otherwise meat-andpotatoes staging.

Though the supporting cast is uneven, its considerable ranks contain some outstanding players. Until she's misused by the director at the end, Marian Seldes's cronish-looking Margaret is a frightening, hard-driving Cassandra, hurling her curses in guttural tones while swiveling on a crooked tree branch. Bruce Davison really makes us see both the wonders and the horrors of the deep when he recites Clarence's nightmare. Betty Miller is a wise and maternal Duchess of York; Concetta Tomei brings Queen Elizabeth's final verbal bout with Richard to a scalding boil.

On the debit side are Madeleine Potter's neophyte Lady Anne, John Seitz's burlesque Hastings, David Alan Grier's schoolboyish Richmond and, especially, Gerry Bamman's smug and affected Buckingham. But they usually don't get in the way of the high-stakes game that holds our major interest. When this production is compelling, it's because we're caught up in the tension of watching the gifted star try to fill a maddeningly difficult role: There aren't many actors who are better than Mr. Kline, but, at this point, Richard III is one of them. Cackling Prophetess.

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