SHELF LIFE- Intriguing: Richard III charms and repels

This article is the last covering the Blackfriars Theater's three spring productions.

"Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York."

Many know these words from Shakespeare's Richard III but rarely think of them in proper context, signaling the commencement of an intriguing– if deeply troubled and corrupt– political campaign.

Indeed, few think of Shakespeare as a historian, or as having any interest in the real political struggles of his time.

In the virtual universe of Shakespearean drama, however, not even politics or history escapes the author's scrutiny­ or his lyrical coloring. Despite being based on actual events of England's 15th-century civil war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, Richard III­ like all Shakespearean drama­ is a work of art meant to be entertaining rather than an authoritative scholarly treatment of the so-called "War of the Roses."

The most austere of the productions at Blackfriars this season, Richard III is nevertheless a luxury for theatergoers, offering historical insight in addition to Shakespeare's wit and word play.

But the educational reward is not easily won. One of the longest of Shakespeare's 38 plays­ second only to Hamlet­ Richard III features an immensely complicated plot, dramatizing the intricate and chaotic interactions among over 30 characters. But despite its length, the text is characterized by high-speed plot developments.

Director Joyce Peifer, like others who have tackled the play, has cut marginal plot details and characters. Still, many in the American Shakespeare Center's traveling troupe– just 11 members strong– must juggle up to three roles to pull it off. Troupe member Sarah Bowles, for example, plays a widow, a duke, and an adolescent boy. Andrew Gorell, however, plays only the role of Richard.

Richard III is the story of the rise and fall of the brutish, ambitious youngest son of the House of York who plots to capture the throne. A social and spiritual outcast cursed with physical and emotional deformities, Richard hatches a scheme to achieve his political ambitions by killing his two brothers, deceitfully courting a victim's wife, imprisoning his brother's sons, and defrauding an entire nation.

With or without familiarity with medieval history, the audience can guess how the play will end. But the intrigue is in the details, in the way the troupe choreographs the text to reveal the subtle dimensions of the title character.

Little time is wasted with preliminary character development. The play launches directly into action, presupposing the audience's general familiarity with the political figures and political climate of the day. The tone is set in the first lines, when Richard openly declares his plan: "I am determined to prove a villain/ And hate the idle pleasures of these days."

One complication of portraying the villain, Gorell says, is that "Those who commit evil acts often are aware that what they're doing is evil. There's an underlying humanity."

Gorell also notes the importance of relying solely on the text for guidance, aware that exposure to other performances of the play might have tainted his own interpretation. "The words tell me how to act," he says.

The play demands more effort from the audience than this spring's other two shows, Much Ado or Forbidden Planet, as the players provide fewer rhetorical cues than in the comedies. It's a more exhausting production to watch, since the plot depends primarily on the machinations of the title character.

If Richard's behavior seems unbelievably villainous­ if the evil of his personality seems exaggerated­ one must remember that Elizabeth I, who ruled during Shakespeare's time, was a member of the Tudor dynasty, descending from Henry VII, who succeeded the last Yorkist king. Thus Shakespeare might have felt some indirect political pressure to please her court by presenting such a portrait of Richard.

Again, there is historical continuity: while the writer may very well be at liberty to mine the political sphere for material, not even Shakespeare himself was exempt from the practical need to be politically savvy.