The opening-night audience at Seattle’s Intiman Theater is one any managing director at a resident theater would envy. Alongside the usual gray-haired patrons and middle-aged matrons mill a fair number of college students, young actors from the fringe, even the occasional local rock musician. How did a subscription-based theater get to be so happening? A visit to the theater’s current staging of “Richard III” explains a lot.
The play is directed by Bartlett Sher, Intiman’s a.d. and — thanks to his Tony-winning renditions of “The Light in the Piazza” and “Awake and Sing!” — Seattle’s hottest theatrical property. In typical Sher fashion, this “Richard” is visceral, passionate and, in passages, so elaborately staged as to be almost choreographed. It isn’t always subtle, and in some particulars it is downright strange, but it goes for the gut and more often than not hits its mark.
Sher has set the play in its original period, albeit with some anachronistic details in both sets and costumes. Sound is provided by two thundering percussionists (Michael McQuilken and Kimo Muraki) sitting aloft. And the villain who would be king is played by Guthrie regular Stephen Pelinski, with a kind of syncopated delivery that avoids cliche but sometimes baffles (“… made glorious summer! … by this son of York”).
Pelinski is somewhat encumbered by his large hump and lame arm. The extent of Richard’s deformity is always a matter of interpretation, of course, but Pelinski’s arm seems to work selectively — most of the time it hangs limp, but then it suddenly springs to life to fight or woo — which is distracting.
That’s too bad, because underneath the fuss, the actor shows stores of the ambition, ruthlessness and charm so central to Richard’s character. His penultimate scene, in which he confronts the ghosts of his victims, is gripping enough to erase earlier doubts.
Some of the Northwest’s top actors round out the 25-member cast, and at least a half-dozen of those power unforgettable moments: Kristin Flanders, Hans Altwies, Allen Gilmore, Timothy McCuen Piggee, Megan Cole.
Suzanne Bouchard, as the wronged Queen Margaret, chews up the scenery and then spits it out in the form of curses on the royal clan. Turning from one ill-fated character to the next, she drizzles handfuls of dirt about the stage, setting the overarching theme for the entire production: the grim death march of destiny.
While some productions emphasize the chameleon-like nature of evil, or society’s unwitting acquiescence to tyranny, this “Richard” seems first of all about curses, prophesies and the way violence inevitably is repaid by violence. Margaret haunts many scenes, lurking behind the scaffolding that serves as the play’s primary set, watching the foretold unfold. On Richard’s final, sleepless night, more dirt cascades from above, and Margaret’s prophesy is fulfilled.
With imagery and action foregrounded, wordplay and poetry play a secondary role. Several black-comic exchanges between minor characters have been cut — for instance, some of the back-and-forth between the two assassins sent to the Tower to kill Richard’s brother, the Duke of Clarence (Gilmore). This episode is played with dark, intense purpose, and the results are thrilling.
Sometimes the action is so heightened that it overshadows the text. In the final battle, the Earl of Richmond (Altwies) stabs and then beats Richard to death in a prolonged fit of animal rage. This duel — only fleetingly mentioned in the script — is so gruesome and effortful that it has audience members grimacing in their seats.
But grimacing is a far cry from falling asleep. At the end, the audience is on its feet, cheering, while the drums rumble rhythmically overhead. The Shakespeare fans are happy; the first-time theatergoers are happy.
Certainly Sher and Intiman managing director Laura Penn are pleased. Their genius is the ability to concoct performances (indeed, whole seasons) like this one that appeal both to lovers of the classics and to new audiences. It’s largely through this approach that they earned Intiman its regional Tony Award earlier this month.