An Up Close Richard III In Cambridge

Richard III
Actor’s Shakespeare Project
Swedenborg Chapel
Harvard Square, Cambridge
Through March 11

Reviewed by Bobby Franklin

One of the great enjoyments of Actor’s Shakespeare Project productions is they are held in different venues. This provides both an opportunity and a challenge for directors. In the decision to stage Richard III at the Swedenborg Chapel, director Robert Walsh was given both.

Upon entering the chapel and taking my seat in one of the pews, I was puzzled by how I would be able to see the play. After all, the only clearly visible place where an actor could be seen would be from the pulpit: Hardly the spot to stage the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The gothic architecture, shadowy lighting, and smell of incense in the air certainly created a fitting atmosphere in which to witness Gloucester as he plots and executes his way the throne. But again, there was the question of actually getting to see it all.

Steven Barkhimer as Richard III
Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots

Director Walsh answered my question from the moment the opening lines were said. This production would not take place on a stage, it would happen amongst the audience. The action, or at least 90% of it happens in the aisles alongside and in between the pews. Theatre does not get any closer or more personal than this. This works particularly well with Richard III as I do not believe there is another character in the works of Shakespeare who speaks directly to the audience as much as the title character does.

I have seen productions of Richard III where Gloucester comes across quite cunning and charming almost to the point where the audience members felt taken in by him and had pangs of guilt towards the end when his ruthlessness is on full display.

This is not the way Steven Barkhimer plays him. Dressed in black, walking with a limp, arm in a sling, and wearing a beret in the first act, and a headband representing a crown in the second, Mr. Barkhimer gives us a Richard whose phony charm is easily seen through from the outset. This approach allows us to see just how quickly the other characters are willing to compromise their morals in order to share in his power. They are not being taken in by his cunning, but instead willfully sell out to him. It is his power that corrupts the others, not his charm.

Steven Barkhimer and Mara Sidmore
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

The scene where Richard woos Anne while standing next to the body of her husband whom Richard had slain is a perfect example of this. The grieving Anne, played by Mara Sidmore, is disgusted by the overtures but also realizes the power she will gain by giving into Richard. Ms Sidmore plays this tension very well. It is morality versus practicality, and in spite of Anne’s protestations, we know early on what her decision will be. It’s not Richard’s talk, but rather what he has to offer that allows him to woo her in this way. Mara Sidmore is also excellent as Catesby. Wearing a black fedora style hat she elevates the role of Richard’s most loyal follower.

The cast is limited to six actors playing the numerous roles, and they all manage to move from one character to another along with their differing personalities seamlessly. Deaon Griffin-Pressley who plays Hastings, Rivers, Terrell, and Richmond also plays Murderer 2 opposite Paula Plum as Murderer 1. Mr. Griiffn-Pressley speaks with a Jamaican Patois while Ms Plum has the swagger of a 1930s movie gangster. It is an interesting combination and well chosen.

Ms Plum also plays Queen Elizabeth, and the scene where Richard attempts to get Elizaleth’s approval for marrying her daughter is particularly powerful in this intimate setting.

Michael Forden Walker plays Buckingham and Stanley, but is at his best in the role of the tragic Clarence. Clarence relating his dream is moving, and his plea for sparing his life is so dreadful and sad.

Jennie Israel
(Photo Credit: Nile Scott Shots)

And now to Jennie Israel. Ms Israel comes close to stealing the show as she plays Brackenbury, King Edward, and Ratcliff. Her Margaret is just wonderful. Her presence is strong but not overwhelming, and her rhythm is beautiful. Ms Israel and Ms Plum are also impressive in red bows playing the two young and ill fated princes.

Richmond’s speech before the Battle of Bosworth Field is always powerful but more so in the hands of Deaon Griffin-Pressley as he walks through the aisles addressing the audience. Given in this setting it is particularly effective.

Richard gives his speech from the pulpit which is the highest spot in the chapel to perform from, it is a fitting place to have him speak just before his downfall. Mr. Barkhimer shows the failing despot giving it his one last try to keep the troops in line.

The battle itself is something to witness. It is a dance/fight scene brilliantly choreographed with drums playing in the background and the actors banging sticks together as they move through the chapel. I did duck for cover on more than one occasion.

Deaon Griffin-Pressley and Paula Plum
(Photo credit: Nile Scott Shots)

I doubt you will get the chance again to see such an intimate production of Richard III, nor one so creatively done. The chapel setting could not be more perfect. The lighting, which I was told was limited and challenging was also very effective. There was one scene where shadows are cast on the back wall that elicited a gasp from the audience. It was something to see.

It is also great for people like me who tend to fidget in their seats. While seating is in the pews, they are quite comfortable, and the ASP has also allowed quite a bit of seating room so audience members have no trouble shifting around to watch the action as it moves about them, and that is great news for us fidgeters.

For those of my readers who enjoy Shakespeare, you will be very pleased by this production. For those of you who have shied away from seeing these great works there could be no better introduction. It is helpful to read a synopsis of the play before going, but don’t be intimidated by it. Sit back and let it play out before you. You will be wooed.