Review | An inclusive but unwieldy ‘Richard III’

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17.
Photo: Joan Marcus

We tend to associate Shakespeare in the Park – and outdoor summertime productions of Shakespeare plays in general – with the comedies and romances, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” The tragedies are less frequently produced, and the history plays are virtually never done.

With that in mind, the Public Theater deserves credit for mounting “Richard III,”  a long and choppy history pageant/political thriller/tragedy that is best known for its scheming, shameless, and soliloquizing title villain. This marks the first Shakespeare in the Park production of “Richard III” since 1990 (when Denzel Washington played Richard), as well as the first Shakespeare in the Park production of any of the history plays since 2003 (when Liev Schreiber starred in “Henry V”).

This is a particularly ideal time to revisit “Richard III,” which is a gripping portrait of a serial liar, sociopath, and unlikely politician who possesses incredible persuasive power and will do anything to stay in power. Late in the play, when one of Richard’s most devoted lieutenants gets punished and discarded after refusing Richard’s most immoral and sickening demand to date, one can’t help but think of Donald Trump and Mike Pence on January 6.  

“Richard III” is being staged by director-playwright Robert O’Hara (“Slave Play,” “Barbeque”) in a decidedly unconventional fashion that incorporates diverse and inclusive casting. Most notably, Richard is played by a Black actress, namely Danai Gurira (“The Walking Dead”). And whereas Richard is usually depicted as deformed, O’Hara has instead cast actors with physical disabilities in prominent supporting roles. Some scenes are even performed in American Sign Language.

Unfortunately, this is an unwieldy and dramatically inert production that resembles the rough results of an exploratory workshop, with a medieval-looking design that conflicts with the experimental tone and awkward attempts to inject freewheeling comedy. It is more like a commentary on “Richard III” than a production of the play itself. 

Gurira gives a one-note, overly aggressive performance without any shading or subtlety. Tony Award winner Ali Stroker (“Oklahoma!”), who tries to land some laughs under awkward circumstances, seems lost. The surprise standout of the production is Sharon Washington in the minor, frequently cut role of Queen Margaret, who curses out Richard and his entire family.

The second part of the Shakespeare in the Park season will be a musical adaptation of the pastoral comedy “As You Like It,” in which a professional cast will be joined by over 100 New Yorkers from all five boroughs. In other words, it should be the opposite of “Richard III.”

Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. For info on obtaining free tickets and directions, visit publictheater.org. Through Sun.

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