‘Richard III’ review: A woke misfire for Shakespeare in the Park

There is something seriously wrong with Richard III. 

Not only the royal rogue — a murderous psychopath who kills for power with the glee of a game of mini-golf — but the new Shakespeare In The Park production of a tragedy that it has zero grasp of.

Theater review

2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Loosely directed by Robert O’Hara, “Richard III” is a bit like, well, a walk in the park: relaxing, slow, carefree, aimless. And, specific to the winding paths of Central Park where the Delacorte Theater is, awfully confusing.

Our befuddlement begins straightaway and never lets up. 

When Danai Gurira of Marvel’s “Black Panther” first takes the stage as the title role, the actress has no perceivable hunchback or arm trouble. And yet the dialogue suggesting Richard suffers from a lifelong physical issue (“rudely stamped”) has been kept in. Perhaps we are to use our imaginations. Who knows? We are certainly tempted to close our eyes.

Scrapping Richard’s main motivation for vengefully seizing the throne — being cruelly shunned by those closest to him (the character is still a man, by the way) — could be a statement about the randomness and harm of bullying, but it only serves as a hindrance to compelling drama. 

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in “Richard III.”
publictheater.org/Joan Marcus

Imagine getting to the end of an Agatha Christie novel in which Hercule Poirot shouts, “The killer… had no reason!”

Twisting things into more knots is that many actors in O’Hara’s cast are differently abled — there are deaf actors, a little person, a performer who uses a wheelchair and more. Inclusion onstage is terrific. However, these casting choices in a play in which the main character is loathed for his disability are clearly meant to make a salient point. As directed by O’Hara, they do not.

What we are left with is a long, impenetrable night of theater that comes off under-rehearsed. Few scenes get it right. 

Lady Anne (Ali Stroker) and Richard (Dania Gurira) have a confrontation in "Richard III."
Lady Anne (Ali Stroker) and Richard (Dania Gurira) have a confrontation in “Richard III.”
Joan Marcus

Take the famous, hot-blooded chat between Richard and Lady Anne (Ali Stroker from “Oklahoma!”), in which he brazenly woos the woman whose husband and father-in-law he’s just offed. Here, it’s a skit amped up to the point of ridicule. Gurira’s overzealous Tricky Dick, while skilled, seduces neither Anne nor us and Stroker’s Anne chooses vague distress and never wavers.

Sharon Washington scorches the stage as Queen Margaret.
Sharon Washington scorches the stage as Queen Margaret.
Joan Marcus

Not many actors make an impression here, relying on silly colloquialisms to get viewers to react to their speeches.

Of all the women who are onto Richard’s schemes, only Sharon Washington as Queen Margaret, his loudest detractor, soars. The wonderful Washington proves that when an actor can sumptuously deliver classical text, they will get an audience’s full attention.

On that front, Gurira lands somewhere in the middle. She finds her footing late in the play when Richard’s earlier serpentine coercions give way to eruptions of anger and paranoia. The actress is thunderous on the battlefield. Her portrayal is loud and full of energy throughout — though more Disney than Shakespeare — and the most delicious Machiavellian maneuvers are therefore flat and unsatisfying.

Myung Hee Cho’s set of light-up, rotating cathedral-ish structures is easy on the eyes and functional. But Dede Ayite’s costumes are a tad all-over-the-place. Much of the cast is dressed in leather and straps like they’re going to a sexy Renaissance Faire, while others are in big puffy dress. The young Prince of Wales and Duke of York wear glitter sneakers.

Those shiny shoes exemplify the primary problem of this production: So much is going on, yet so little is going on.

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