(Garden Grove, CA) July 20, 2012 – “Beauty is only skin deep,” and “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Both profound sayings teach the essential lesson that a person’s physical features are not important; the key is to recognize the sublime beauty which composes that individual’s soul. And by ripping away this physical ugliness, we as a society can love that individual’s inner magnificence, benevolence, grace, compassion, and divine humility.
Sadly, William Shakespeare’s Richard III does not have any of these qualities. This misshapen Duke of Gloucester is ugly through and through. When he walks the streets, the dogs bark at him. When women glance at him, they turn away in disgust. And when certain members of the royal family gloat over their reign, they verbally taunt Richard as though he were the court jester. But Richard is no fool. His inner repulsiveness easily surpasses the ugliness of his twisted, malformed body. But what makes Richard so dangerous is his brilliant intelligence, cleverness, and especially his seductive powers. This villain is extremely insightful and charming, as well as manipulative and psychopathic. And the actor who portrays this fascinating antagonist must possess the magnetic presence, the fluidic eloquence, and the three-dimensional layering to draw the audience into his story. For this 2012 season opener at Shakespeare Orange County, theatre, film, and television veteran John Walcutt is absolute perfection in the title role.
All is victorious after the War of the Roses, a victory led by the three sons of the Duke of York: the newly crowned King Edward IV (William Gillean), the sympathetic George, Duke of Clarence (Nicholas Thurkettle) and the youngest---and angriest---Richard, Duke of Gloucester (John Walcutt). All are celebrating, except the deformed Richard, who desires to take the crown and rule England by any means necessary. Therefore, with the help of his second-in-command Buckingham (Mike Peebler) and various human pawns of his choosing---including Lord Hastings (Franc Ross) and Sir Catesby (Sean Scofield), Richard joyfully shares with the audience his devious machinations, which includes seducing Lady Anne (Amanda Zarr)---the widow of the Lancaster prince who Richard killed, eliminating the brothers and sons of Edward IV’s wife Elizabeth (Evelyn Carol Case), and murdering anyone else who would stand in his way in obtaining his place on the throne. And through all his actions, his charm almost causes the audience to cheer him on. But it isn’t until he finally obtains his position of power when his allure transforms into unbridled, malevolent insanity.
The last time Shakespeare Orange County produced Richard III was in 1995, with Drama-Logue Award winner Ron Campbell cast in the title role. Although his performance was magnificently reptilian, John Walcutt’s portrayal is nothing short of phenomenal. He is mischievous, charismatic, and wonderfully grotesque as though he were a captivating hobgoblin, courtesy of his hump and misshapen limbs. In last year’s SOC production of Julius Caesar, Walcutt’s Cassius was a unique exploration of an ex-soldier turned power-hungry politician; he went outside of the box by staying away from the usual “devious, manipulative senator” and created an interpretation that added more subtext to his character. Walcutt analytically approaches Richard by mixing resentment, hatred, and the physical pain of his deformities with high doses of absolute enjoyment of the evil that he is committing. Walcutt smiles with glee at his actions, especially when he brags about his plans to the audience. During the first act, the audience almost wants Richard to conquer his entitled family tree, and Walcutt’s masterful eloquence of the Bard’s poetics, as well as his mesmerizing personality, drives this show from beginning to end. Its layered performance---ranging from amiable, to seductive, to viciousness, and ending at guilt-ridden, paranoid psychosis---is a true testament to Walcutt’s craft. Hopefully, he will make more appearances at SOC in the years yet to come.
Another remarkable performance is Peebler’s opportunistic Buckingham. Well known at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum for his recent critically-acclaimed performances in Julius Caesar (Brutus), Hamlet (title role) and especially The Miser (the hilariously comedic Cleante), Peebler makes his debut at SOC, and his portrayal of Buckingham shows his Machiavellian side beautifully. When Buckingham coaches and guides the populace in accepting Richard as their new ruler, Peebler displays a deviously wicked and comedic nature to his character. However, when he witnesses the conquered Queen of Lancaster, Margaret (Terri Ciranna), mutilating herself during her string of verbal curses, Peebler shows a subtle compassion of the Duke that is rarely explored. And when Richard orders to have his own two young nephews killed, Peebler’s face literally turns grey will sickening disgust. He realized that he has inadvertently opened Pandora’s Box in helping this madman gain unlimited power, resulting in his own doom. Peebler’s mixture of ambition and guilt is absolutely flawless. And, like Walcutt, it would be a true pleasure to see Peebler on this Orange County stage again. Also moving was Ross’s Lord Hastings, who beautifully combines a lyrical expressiveness to his authoritarian presence. And when he is betrayed by Richard, Ross shows a quiet dignity that adds sympathy to his Hastings.
The lead actresses also enhance the high quality of all the performances, most notably by Zarr’s Lady Anne, Case’s Queen Elizabeth, and especially Ciranna’s Queen Margaret. Zarr captures the pain and grief of Lady Anne with heartbreaking results. Both Walcutt’s and Zarr’s chemistry during the seduction scene is passionate and patient. And Zarr slowly reveals how Lady Anne’s resolve disintegrates with each poetic word that Richard mutters. Case’s Queen Elizabeth is, at first, vain and prideful. But she then peels away every single layer of Elizabeth’s strength with every cruel action that Richard inflicts on her, deftly showing her emotional and physical violation. And then there is the wonder of Terri Ciranna, who previously portrayed Queen Margaret during the SOC’s 1995 production. That former portrayal was equivalent to that of a prisoner who exuded a regal, dignified, and sophisticated power, meticulously and pointedly pronouncing her curses on those who destroyed her life as though she wielded a lethal spear. She was defeated, but she didn’t lose her composure. However, Ciranna’s 2012 performance is a frightening total opposite to that in 1995. Ciranna magically creates an emaciated wraith of a fallen monarch who has clearly lost her sanity, heaping and casting those curses in one explosive, maniacal spell. Dressed in ratty robes, Cirrana’s Margaret almost haunts the stage like a witchy specter, conjuring one of the most chilling moments in the play. The fact Ciranna can develop two entirely different interpretations of this pitiful Shakespearean queen in two different productions brilliantly illustrates Ciranna’s incredible range as an artist.
As always, Carl Reggiardo’s direction is fast-paced and smooth. He also expertly guides his actors to explore many humorous moments in the play, especially in the first act, in order to lighten its dark mood. With this superior direction, as well as the exquisite level of the acting, most importantly by John Walcutt, SOC Richard III will continue to thrill audiences, preparing the way for their next production, Much Ado About Nothing, which will conclude their 2012 season.
Richard III opened July 19 and runs to August 4,2012
Shakespeare Orange County
The Festival Amphitheatre, 12740 Main Street, Garden Grove, CA
Photos by: Mark Samala