Richard III is Shakespeare in the Park’s latest production at the Delacorte Theatre. The play starred Danai Gurira as Richard, who played Okoye in Black Panther and starred in The Walking Dead. The production features a differently-abled cast, including Ali Stroker from Oklahoma!. The stage is by set designer Myung Hee Cho. Metal obkelisks in semi-circles rotate around a central trap door, indicating different scenes. I had little interest in Shakespeare before this play, while still feeling like I had plenty of exposure to the old white man. His English required a new ear gear, which after two and half hours wears itself out again.
Ironically I found language to be the highlight of this production. Gurira brought Shakespeare to life. Over an hour and a half into the play, the audience was still roaring at 17th century jokes. Shakespeare’s dialogue takes us right up to the heart of the conspiracy just to somersault into a joke.
His contemporaries like Hume and Voltaire who kings asked advice of, looked down at Shakespeare. He bent genres, he invented language and he combined humor with tragedy in the same monologue. They looked at the most influential writer of their time as a regretful case of all passion and no direction. This production does justice to a written tradition of reinvention. Richard III takes Shakespearean dialogue in numerous directions.
Deaf actress Monique Holt plays the Duchess of York and delivers her lines with sign language. There was a moment in the play when the Duchess confronted Richard as a grieving mother and the theater went silent for what felt like minutes. Sometimes she’s assisted by a translator, dressed in all black, playing the role of her voice and servant. I never struggled to understand the Duchess’ pleas, even when I didn’t understand her words.
The dialogue is where the production shines, but the plot is where it falters. Richard III is a quasi-psychological thriller. Shakespeare’s characters whisper their conspiracies to us through the fourth wall. These elements of Shakespeare were played down in comparison to the banter. No matter how entertaining a scene got I often thought, Who is this and why do they care?
Most criticism of Shakespeare in the Park’s latest production is aimed at Richards’ character. Robert O’Hara, acclaimed playwright and co-director, says that Richard’s “internal deformities” are a form of disability. But these internal machinations are understated in comparison to the rest of dialogue. Richard is supposed to be an outcast, forced into the role of a villain. Without developed characters we’re left with caricatures. Being a black woman is not analogous to being the ugly son of a noble English family, and being a grieving medieval woman is not analogous to being deaf. That’s more of a token then a motif. Identity can’t become character.