Smooth-talking villain Richard III reigns over Carroll Park
Smith Street Stage offers free outdoor Shakespeare through June 25
He’s the villain everybody loves to hate — the hunchback with a dark heart, Richard III.
Now here he comes, in all his conniving glory, to a park in Carroll Gardens.
Smith Street Stage is continuing its tradition of offering free outdoor Shakespeare with a modern-dress production of “Richard III” directed by Jonathan Hopkins, the theater group’s executive director.
It’s great stuff.
William Shakespeare wrote this tragedy about the evil seed of the House of York in the early 1590s. It was the playwright’s first huge success.
In the production in Carroll Park, Michael Hanson is pitch-perfect in the title role of the twisted, charismatic Richard. He becomes the king of England and holds onto the throne for a while by arranging the murders of relatives, rivals and friends.
Richard is the schemer-in-chief in a hellish realm where double-dealing and death are tools for attaining political power.
A fake smile and silver-tongued persuasiveness
He’s the embodiment of Hamlet’s famous observation “that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”
Hanson plays Richard with a big, fake grin that helps him fool other characters about his foul intentions. But with the audience, he’s completely candid.
In a monologue that opens the play, Richard steps away from his brother, King Edward IV (played just right by Justin Crowley), and the king’s court for a heart-to-heart talk with the audience.
Richard, who hates the gentle peacetime that has descended upon England, was born deformed. He is so lame and misshapen “that dogs bark at me as I halt by them,” he confides.
Hanson limps down a narrow aisle that puts audience members’ faces just inches away from his and explains, “I am determined to prove a villain.”
At this point in the evening, the sun hasn’t set. In the light of day, he’s looking us right in the eye. Instantly, we are his co-conspirators, like it or not.
And far beyond that beaming false smile, Richard’s great weapon is his silver-tongued persuasiveness.
When he decides to marry — for the sake of political expediency and not love, of course — the target of his amorous campaign, Lady Anne (played superbly by Raquel Chavez) hurls insults at him.
She should hate him. He killed both her father-in-law — who was King Henry VI — and her husband, Prince Edward.
But our Richard has such a way with words. He offers to stab himself to prove his devotion to Anne. He conjures up instant tears of false repentance to shed over her father-in-law’s corpse, which is lying nearby.
Once it’s clear Richard has reeled her in, and she has stepped out of earshot, he turns to the audience and urges us to applaud him for his skillfulness in wooing the grieving widow.
Actresses shine in several male roles
The many other excellent performers in the cast of “Richard III” include Kate Ross as Henry VI’s widow, Queen Margaret. She’s a fierce harridan whose eyes glaze with furious tears as she rains ominous curses on Richard and the members of his brother Edward IV’s court.
Shaun Bennet Fauntleroy is a magnificent and haughty Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s wife.
Brendan Cataldo is touching as Richard and Edward’s wrongly imprisoned brother, the Duke of Clarence, who is murdered in the Tower.
With “Richard III,” Smith Street Stage continues its practice of casting women in male Shakespeare roles.
Katie Willmorth gives an especially noteworthy performance as the Duke of Buckingham, who is Richard’s chief co-conspirator.
She’s riveting as a tough girl who matches Richard in his skills as a smooth-talking politician.
When the Mayor of London comes for a visit, Buckingham coaxes a seemingly reluctant Richard — who’s holding a prayer book in a pretense of piety, which was Buckingham’s idea — to accept the crown.
Also, actress Nowani Rattray plays Richmond, who becomes King Henry VII. She’s a radiant young hero wielding a flashing sword.
It is she who meets Richard on the field of battle, and slays him. No lesser mortal would be up to the task.
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Smith Street Stage presents Shakespeare’s “Richard III” through June 25 at Carroll Park. It is on the corner of Smith and Carroll streets in Carroll Gardens.
The play is free. No tickets are required.
The performances take place on Wednesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m.
Plan to arrive a half-hour earlier to find a place to sit. It’s a good idea to bring lawn chairs and blankets because only a few rows of chairs are set up.
See SmithStreetStage.org for additional info.