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By John Quinn
We have put a nasty season of campaigning behind us, but if you think politics are rough now, consider 15th-century England. You say you want a throne? Kill the king and his heir, and then marry the prince’s widow. Do you have a brother in the way? Drown him in a wine vat. Are there princes with better claims to the crown? Make them “disappear.” If you manage all this with savoir faire and a delight in your own villainy, you just might be the next Richard III.
The historical Richard was not the misshapen monster William Shakespeare made him out to be. But his throne was usurped and the usurper’s granddaughter reigned as Elizabeth I, so it was expedient to show that a change of dynasty was necessary. “Richard III” is a masterpiece of character assassination. It’s also a wicked black comedy.
The Hilberry Theatre’s program gives a family tree to help sort out the mind-bending twists of the War of the Roses, but it’s not really necessary. As he himself would say, it’s all about Richard. Detroit native Edmund Alyn Jones dominates the stage with a fine balance of menace and self-satisfaction. It’s a cliche, but Jones gives us a villain we love to hate. The production is so focused on the lead that we don’t need to sort out the other characters – they’re merely pawns in Richard’s game.
Director Alison C. Vesely has made some sharp decisions in this production. When Shakespearean actors fall into the playwright’s meter, even the most convoluted passages are understandable. Listening to a 21st-century audience laugh at 16th-century dialogue shows what skillful direction can accomplish. Vesely has given Jones the leeway to craft a very personal Richard, and the balance of horror and humor is just right. Keeping characters onstage as observers brings a whole new meaning to “dressing the stage.”
While the script has been edited, there remain unavoidable dead spots in the second act. These are mostly expositions of historical context, with which even the “groundlings” at the Globe knew and expected. “Richard III” is the work of a young Shakespeare, and it’s raw and unpolished. Yet even unpolished Shakespeare is a gem beyond price. Treasure it – we won’t see the likes of this again. You can’t write a masterpiece 140 characters at a time.
Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Plays in rotating repertory through Feb. 25. $25-$30. 313-577-2972. http://www.hilberry.com