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My Kingdom for a Director!

What’s wrong with Richard III.

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Illustration by Henry Janson  

Few things sting worse than good intentions gone awry. For the third time in two years—and away from the continuing Broadway strike—the gifted actor Michael Cumpsty and the respected director Brian Kulick have staged a Shakespearean tragedy. Their Richard III, like their Hamlet and Richard II before it, nobly resists star casting, high-concept foolishness, and other temptations that doom so many revivals. Still, like its predecessors at Classic Stage Company, it goes all wrong. Shakespearean tragedy indeed.

The trouble starts at the top. Handsome, commanding, and well-spoken, Cumpsty has thrived in all sorts of roles. Alas, these damaged tragic heroes haven’t been among them. He was too sober for Hamlet’s madness, too resolute for the fluttery charm of Richard II (though he made the looking-glass speech sing—a reminder of how captivating he can be). Now, as an oddly presentable Richard III—he has a tiny bump on his back and a mild limp, like his foot is asleep—Cumpsty barely seems nasty, let alone a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad.” Downplaying Richard’s monstrosity makes him approachable, but it leaches the flavor from this wicked play. If every stop on Cumpsty’s tour of the canon is going to be so decorous, I’d rather skip to the less exotic (but much better-fitting) Iago, Benedick, or Brutus.

Excess decorum has not been Kulick’s problem. On the contrary, each play has been crusted with ideas that were pedestrian or just plain bad, from herding the audience onstage at the start of Hamlet to having a half-dozen chandeliers nonsensically yo-yo up and down in Richard III. Give blame where it’s due: Kulick and Cumpsty are listed as co-directors here. They share responsibility for a cast that—apart from Michael Potts as the king’s treacherous henchman and Roberta Maxwell as the fierce Queen Margaret—generally left me wincing.

I wonder if low morale contributed to the perilous performances. After sporting Skittles-colored tunics in Act One, the actors are forced into what look like puffy wet suits in Act Two. Plus there’s the cornball gimmick of audience members waving little flags when Richard takes the throne. New York is desperate for bold treatment of the classics, all right, but making this dark and brutal play feel like children’s theater isn’t helping.

The Public, meanwhile, is presenting the third installment of an altogether happier series of plays. In 2005, Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter gave the city In the Continuum, a heartbreaking play that began as an NYU project about two women and aids. Last year, Daniel Beaty arrived from Yale with Emergence-See, a provocative solo play about a slave ship that surfaces in New York Harbor. Now Tarell Alvin McCraney follows in Beaty’s footsteps, giving the city the third extraordinary play in as many years by an immensely promising African-American dramatist fresh out of school.

The Brothers Size invites a kind of double vision. Viewed one way, it’s a retelling of a Yoruban legend about three deities: one hardworking, one solitary, one a trickster. But McCraney sets it near the Louisiana bayou, where Ogun (Gilbert Owuor) tries to give his wayward half-brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) a fresh start after a stint in jail. A job at an auto shop, Ogun hopes, will keep Oshoosi away from his shady ex-cellmate, Elegba (Elliot Villar). A million playwrights have tried to fuse homespun stories with vibrantly theatrical ritual—the actors here perform shirtless, in a ring drawn on the floor, joined by a live drummer—but precious few match this lyricism and grace.

Tea Alagic, the show’s inventive director, and its three actors (none of whom could be better) draw you so far into McCraney’s world that when he loses his way for a scene or two, you feel sympathy, not irritation. Luckily, your patience is soon rewarded: When he regains his footing, he makes inspired use of the sweet, sweet sound of Otis Redding.

Richard III
By William Shakespeare. Classic Stage Company. Through December 9.

The Brothers Size
By Tarell Alvin McCraney. The Public Theater. Through December 23.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.


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