nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
July 18, 2007
Nicu's Spoon, the innovative indie theatre company, is presenting an exciting but troubling production of Shakespeare's great paean to villainy, Richard III. As they did with their production of Buried Child where Tilden was played by hearing-impaired actor Darren Fudenske, Nicu's Spoon has chosen to throw new light on a familiar character by having him played by a disabled actor. In this case, Henry Holden, a performer who needs crutches to move around, essays the role of Richard. According to the program, Nicu's Spoon sees Richard as the story of "a normal guy who has had enough and wants things that are rightfully his and will earnestly try his best to get them—in reality the story of any disabled member of our society even today."
We first see Holden lying against the wall with a bottle of whiskey, his left pant-leg rolled up to show his artificial leg. We see the actor who we will later discover is Hastings briefly make out with a young lady, and then the two run off giggling. Richard then pulls himself painstakingly into a chair, and launches into the play's opening soliloquy.
Holden is more of an interesting presence than a classically-trained actor, but the tough-guy Brooklyn accent he presents gives what I thought was a good idea of the type of Richard he is going to be. In the scene that immediately follows, the entrance of Richard's brother Clarence, Holden simply mimes along while Andrew Hutcheson, out of costume in a corner with a small light, music stand, and the script, reads the lines. As the play moves along, Holden only speaks during soliloquies, meaning Hutcheson actually delivers the large majority of Richard's lines. This choice threw me out of the play, initially, as I struggled to understand why it was made. Are we supposed to understand that Richard's true self appears in his monologues, while others saw him through a lens of their own? If so, why cast an actor who speaks with such a gorgeous, round voice as Hutcheson? That doesn't seem to suggest the kind of prejudice referenced in the program. To my surprise, once I gave up trying to figure out why the choice was made, it didn't bother me anymore and I just enjoyed the combination of two interesting performers.
I had similar reactions to some of director Heidi Lauren Duke's other choices, like having Lady Anne disguise herself as the murderous Tyrell. The choice doesn't stand up to close examination of the text, but it is certainly bold and interesting. Fortunately, much of the rest of the production is spot-on, and the supremely talented ensemble nearly all play a multitude of roles. Particular standouts are Jim Williams, who assays many of the play's major supporting roles with Buckingham, the Second Murderer, King Edward, and Oxford; and Amber Allison, who creates such a distinct characterization with her Duke of York that I had no idea it was the same actress who was also playing Lady Anne. Lauren Duke directs the play with broad strokes, emphasizing buffoonish comedy and dark melodrama, throwing together seemingly disparate elements that blend into a thoroughly entertaining mix. The design elements adhere to this philosophy, particularly S. Barton Farcas's period-mixing costumes (which include a wonderful tuxedo shirt, tails, and leather pants combination) and Sarah Gromko's wide-ranging, invigorating sound design.
It seems unfair to quibble so much with such an entertaining production, but I felt that this Richard III had little to do with "the story of a normal guy who has had enough" and simply presented us a standard production of Richard III, albeit with the presence of a disabled actor. The insults that are hurled at Richard as relating to his deformity ("a bottled spider", "a hunchbacked toad") were given no extra weight or venom until after he'd already murdered more than enough people to deserve it. The little tableau at the beginning was a missed opportunity, I felt. Hastings didn't even look at Richard while enjoying his stolen kiss, much less mock his disability. If Richard unleashed his murderous rampage because of simple jealousy then he's not a figure of sympathy.
The fascinating thing about this production was how much I thought about the choices the director was making at the beginning, and by the end, how much I had given over to the sheer entertainment of the show. This Richard III is bold, strong, and enjoyable. I'm just not sure Nicu's Spoon achieved their own goals.