In Shakespeare in the Park’s new production of “Richard III,” Danai Gurira plays the title role less as a politician than as a performer.
Gurira’s Richard is a mastermind of chaos at the court, who rises to a brief reign in part by a violent willingness to do whatever (or kill whomever) is necessary. But there’s a tactical sprightliness in Gurira’s delivery, too, as she works both to win over both potential allies in her game of thrones and the audience, as well. As written, Richard is (perhaps literally) hunched of back and suffering from physical maladies; by contrast, this Richard, relentlessly propulsive, only suffers one limitation, a congenital absence of shame. He feigns piety or concern for those he himself wants dead, then turns to the audience with a leer. Having achieved, for instance, a temporary victory, Gurira punches the air triumphantly, goosing the audience for applause. Those in the stands at the Delacorte Theater can fool themselves, momentarily, into thinking they’re watching one of Shakespeare’s comedies.
That sleight-of-hand, showing us Richard’s brutality but masking it within a roguish, needy élan, is an idea that runs throughout Robert O’Hara’s production. O’Hara keeps the energy here vibrantly up throughout a substantial run time; this production’s announcing the rise of King Richard with a coronation dance number, for instance, recalls the masterful integration of Rihanna’s “Work” into the O’Hara-directed “Slave Play.” Now, as before, the joyful release of pop music is conditional, covering for dread the dancers can’t quite admit. Richard’s court is governed by fear, even as he mistakes if for love. And both the ominousness of what’s coming for Richard and the giddiness with which he denies it play deliciously big under O’Hara’s direction.
Because both of these emotions exist within Gurira’s Richard, the play is at its most electric and chewily complex when the performer — known for her screen roles in “Black Panther” and “The Walking Dead” and for writing plays including “Eclipsed” — is romping across the stage. But the ensemble keeps the momentum racing towards the inevitable fall throughout. Sharon Washington, as Queen Margaret, barely shrouds her disgust for Richard behind a regal reserve; Heather Alicia Simms’ Queen Elizabeth is still more plainspoken in her contempt, after having initially granted Richard favor. All who come into contact with Richard end up marred: Ali Stroker, the “Oklahoma!” Tony winner, has the tricky task of showing us the power of his charm offensive, as her Lady Anne first vows vengeance on the man who killed her husband before acceding to him. Richard has gone through life unloved, and as such is a master of extracting sympathy.
The story has an sort of eternal power that wisely resists alighting on any one specific current reference point, unlike, say, Oskar Eustis’ 2017 “Julius Caesar,” which made extensive and specific visual reference to then-President Donald Trump, even as the analogy was seen to collapse. Richard is an archetype that an actor can make new: The character’s novelty, in 2022, comes from Gurira’s performance, rather than in attempts to directly tie him to a figure of the moment.
And the production around Gurira feels fresh without overstatement, adding deft touches from the choreography preceding a conventionally staged scene to the sparkling high-tops on the feet of the young princes (Wyatt Cirbus and Sam Duncan, both excellent) amid a sea of more classic Shakespearean garments; whirring rotating elements move actors around scenic designer Myung Hee Cho’s classic, pared-down late-Middle Ages set. The casting of a Black woman as Richard extends throughout a production that is broadly inclusive, both making room for excellent performers and, at times, forging novel ways of telling the oft-told story. When the Duchess of York (Monique Holt) speaks, it’s through sign language; Holt is a Deaf performer. Often, her words are spoken aloud by the Court Interpreter (Joe Mucciolo). But sometimes, as in the first part of a monologue condemning Richard, they are not, and hearing audience members must concentrate on the emotion in Holt’s face, cleverly framed by a wimple of sorts. We are, and are not, left on the outside of her monumental grief.
All of which adds welcome nuance and heft to a production that is in other moments daringly, almost subversively fun, up until the moment when the worm turns and all the talk gives way to total war. Richard’s sorrowful end — this is, after all, one of the Bard’s historical tragedies — cuts short a rise that has been at turns chilling and a devious sort of pleasure to watch. O’Hara and his ensemble do an excellent job of making the audience feel complicit as we lean forward, waiting for Richard to choose the next pawn he’ll take off the board, and waiting, too, for him to acknowledge us once more. This Richard needs obeisance from everyone, including those of us out there in the stands; his subjects grant it by following orders, and we grant it by tracking the details of his story, and by laughing, despite ourselves, as he works through his kill list.
The play concludes with order restored and the agent of chaos removed; the audience stumbles into the night, the spell of Gurira’s charisma and Richard’s ambition broken, wondering what it is that Shakespeare’s England, and we, just lived through.