As the fall season opens, at least two
Brooklyn theater groups are turning their eyes toward the seamier
side of human existence – murder most dramatic. At the Brooklyn
Lyceum, Jeff Subik’s production of "Richard II" plays
Sept. 5-29, while the Heights Players stages "Anatomy of
a Murder" from Sept. 6 through Sept. 22.
Shakespeare’s "Tragedy of Richard II" tells the story
of a prince who has ascended to the throne while still a child,
a man who is convinced of his divine right to rule, but nonetheless
loses both his kingdom and his life due to his own folly.
Tom Ellis, who directs the Brooklyn Lyceum production, sees a
strong analogy between Richard and the American people and our
leader post-9-11. President George W. Bush is a man who, to a
great extent, has stepped into office by right of birth. We are
a people who were convinced of our invulnerability – until a
symbol of our pride and power was struck down by international
terrorists who used our own technology as instruments of destruction.
However tempting this analogy may be, it can only go so far.
Shakespeare lived in a time when the divine nature of a king
or queen’s right to rule was largely unquestioned. And when the
divine order of the world was upset, the result was often less
desirable than the oppression that had instigated the insurrection.
Do Shakespeare’s sympathies lie with Richard, who is killed in
prison, or Henry Bolingbroke, who overthrows him, indirectly
has him killed and then undertakes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land
to do penance? Over the centuries, conservatives and radicals
have found justification in the play for both maintaining the
status quo and overthrowing it. Indeed Shakespeare, in his typically
balanced approach, leaves ample evidence that he may have favored
both or either view.
Ellis, who not only directs, but also chose the costumes and
the prerecorded rock score, and stars as Richard II, is a talented
and innovative man of the theater. He’s a brilliant actor with
a real appreciation for Shakespearean language, and an able director
who has so finely choreographed the action and movement of the
actors that the play sometimes seems like a dramatic dance. His
choice of military apparel wisely emphasizes the militaristic
nature of both Richard’s and our world.
But Ellis’ monolithic vision is all too evident throughout the
play, leaving little room for the subtlety that makes Shakespeare’s
characters so endlessly fascinating.
Ellis portrays Richard in so nasty and sniveling a fashion that
it’s hard to reconcile Shakespeare’s magnificent words with the
fool who utters them. Consequently, Bolingbroke’s role as usurper
is far less ambivalent than Shakespeare may have intended.
Ellis would have done well to remember that although he calls
the play "Richard II," Shakespeare called it, "The
Tragedy of Richard II." Richard is a tragic figure, brought
down by his own susceptibility to the flattery of courtiers,
and his own conviction of his divine invincibility. In William
Rose Benet’s "The Reader’s Encyclopedia," Richard is
said to have been depicted in Shakespeare’s play as "an
engaging man but an ineffective ruler." Not so in Ellis’
The play does benefit from some fine acting. Robert Wilson Hancock
is a convincing and moving John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and
father of Bolingbroke, and Reese Madigan is excellent as Bolingbroke.
However, why Ellis decided to make several of the king’s courtiers
women dressed in tight black miniskirts is beyond the understanding
of this reviewer.
Ellis, it seems, has fallen into the same trap as such great
actors as Warren Beatty in "Heaven Can Wait" and Paul
Newman in "Message in a Bottle" – the trap of believing
that by controlling all the major aspects of the production they
could create an oeuvre of great artistic merit. But without others
to check artistic excesses, the work is too often compromised.
After 400 years, no one can expect any director to slavishly
follow a traditional interpretation of Shakespeare. On the other
hand, any interpreter of Shakespeare would do well to explore
Shakespeare in all his complexity rather than straightjacket
his themes to fit a one-sided vision based on political timeliness.
This season the Heights Players have replaced the cozy familiarity
of an Agatha Christie murder-mystery with Elihu Winer’s steamy
and sizzling "Anatomy of a Murder." While Christie’s
genteel characters contemplate outings in the park and a glass
of brandy after dinner, Winer’s denizens of a Michigan town swear,
get drunk and rape people in cars.
What a delightful breath of fresh air!
"Anatomy of a Murder" is directed by Jim McNulty and
stars Kerry Wolf ("The Philadelphia Story," "La
Cage aux Folles," "Call Me Madame") as Paul Biegler,
the reluctant defense attorney; Ken Dray (a 27-year veteran of
the Heights Players) as his mentor and partner in the case; and,
making his Heights Players debut, Kevin O’Brien as Frederic Manion,
the Army lieutenant who is accused of killing the man who may
or may not have raped his wife.
Kerry is riveting in his role. He’s honest (to a degree), courageous
(when pushed to the wall) and determined (but not a crusader).
Dray, as his alcoholic sidekick, is at once a gadfly and a goad.
As the object of all this effort, O’Brien is a shrewd and ambiguous
character. He is a liar and a fake and certainly violent enough
to kill someone in cold blood. But is he telling the truth about
his wife’s rape, or has he killed his wife’s lover, then beaten
her and coerced her into backing his story?
This production also includes some excellent supporting actors.
Bernard Bosio ("Side Man," "The Championship Season,"
"Romeo and Juliet," "Babes in Toyland") provides
a welcome touch of humor as Alphonse Paquette, the bartender
who witnessed the murder. And the Heights Players’ president,
Ed Healy, is a convincing and spirited prosecutor, who struts
his stuff in court.
The production, however, would have been vastly improved if Karen
Rousso ("A Chorus Line," "The Philadelphia Story")
had created a more sleazy and seductive Laura Manion, the alleged
rape victim. Rousso is so convincing, honest and pure on the
stand that Wolf seems to have an easy job of it, which is probably
not what the playwright had in mind.
In fact, the 1959 film version directed by Otto Preminger starred
a young Lee Remick as Laura Manion, a pretty, sexy lady in her
own right. But Preminger originally wanted Lana Turner (who reportedly
exchanged blows with the director) for the role and then Jayne
Mansfield, who later decided against doing the film. So it’s
easy to see where Preminger was headed.
Bill Wood has crafted such a realistic courtroom that the audience
actually feels a part of the trial. And Marilyn Beck, as the
judge, only adds to this impression with her firm and reasoned
stance on the bench.
In 1959, "Anatomy of a Murder" shocked movie audiences
with its frank discussion of rape, sperm and missing panties.
Today, our more graphic media have dulled our ability to be scandalized
or offended. But if audiences seeing the Heights Players’ production
won’t be shocked, they will be absorbed by the realistic courtroom
drama, the powerful clash of personalities and the never completely
solved mystery of what exactly happened.
Indeed, with its test of wills, dramatic twists and turns, and
ambiguous ending this courtroom drama should keep most people
on the edge of their seats throughout the play. And when it’s
over, more than a few will be scratching their heads still wondering
what really happened.
This is courtroom drama at its very best.
"Richard II" plays through
Sept. 29, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at
3 pm. Tickets are $15. The Brooklyn Lyceum is located at 227
Fourth Ave. at President Street in Park Slope. For reservations,
call (718) 857-4816 or visit www.Brooklynlyceum.com.
"Anatomy of a Murder" plays through Sept. 22, Friday
and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $10, $8 seniors
and students. The Heights Players’ theater is located at 26 Willow
Place at State Street in Brooklyn Heights. For reservations,
call (718) 237-2752 or visit www.heightsplayers.org.