For sixty years the Public Theater has kept its mission to offer free Shakespeare in the Park to educate and entertain in the finest of historical traditions that explore Shakespearean theater. This year as in previous years there are two productions Richard III and As You Like It offered in the lovely environs of the Delacorte.
Richard III explodes on the stage with energy and vibrance sported by an amazing and diversely talented cast overseen with stark determination, elegance and astute attention to detail by Tony nominated director Robert O’Hara (Slave Play) in his debut at the Delacorte. The production runs until July 17th, and is a must see event. So plan accordingly. You don’t want to miss what will surely be an award winner whose cracker jack design team blasts one’s socks off with beauty, majesty and thematic coherence.
From the moment Richard III kills Henry VI in a striking, surprising, violent moment on the circular platform center stage, to the end when Richard III in warring armor is killed, Danai Gurira doesn’t miss one beat in her authentic, dynamic and spot-on performance. Pinging every nerve of the malevolent genius of Richard, she never hesitates or pulls back. Throughout she wryly, intelligently gives sideways glances and makes ironic comments to the audience, who she wins over as we enjoy watching her unfold her wicked plans. This, Gurira does with humanity and a comfortable, cavalier attitude sans anger which comes later when her fears grow to maintain her crowning success and the kingdom. Indeed, she compels us to giver her license to endear us to her, as she gradually owns her enemies and seduces us with her frank, honestly expressed intentions.
Of course, these are given to us with jocular aplomb and sly smiles. Meanwhile, she lies, cheats, steals power acting the innocent and bereaved victim as a posture, then winks at us, letting us in on the joke of her machinations of which she is most proud. For with Richard, it’s all about the journey to the crown, not the receiving of the power. Like others we have seen in recent years, once power is attained, she is loathe to keep it and struggles ineffectively and incompetently to maintain what all at court and the officials know she has obtained illegally and through horrible treachery. The parallels to Donald Trump, Gurira and O’Hara have made clear, even gestures of success as she points to the audience as Trump often does and gyrates with a fist pump. At this point in time, the hypocrisy becomes comical, yet Gurira manages to keep the humanity, working an incredible balance and tone via O’Hara’s direction and the ensembles’ magnificent work.
I found this above all to be amazing about Gurira’s performance. We watch enthralled as norm after norm is broken. But we are mesmerized because she doesn’t hesitate nor flinch by caving to hypocrisy and morality. It is only until the last scenes when a cavalcade of haunting spirits of kinsmen and once loyal subjects occupy her nightmares that overwhelming guilt reveals she has a conscience and thus, her blood is required to sacrifice herself as she has sacrificed others.
In Richard’s first speech, Gurira complains of the court that glories in peace, something she throws off because that is not her way of being. This first admission of flaws opens us up to hear more as she aligns herself with the deformity of war which better hides her deformity. It is no small consolation to her that peace and court parties and rejoicing show her up to be a social outcast to beauty, civility, and courtly manners. Thus, we deformed are encouraged to empathize with her as outcasts of royalty, not able to prove lovers, but as she embraces herself will prove herself to be a most incredible, hypnotic villain.
And strangely we marvel as she gleefully seduces her enemy Queen Anne (Ali Stroker) who attempts to kill her, though half-heartedly to instead becomes Richard’s wife seduced and bedded with vanity, though Richard has killed her father and husband. Richard amiably spreads self-hatred wherever he goes. Those he seduces to compromise their integrity, end up hating themselves for their weakness in allowing themselves to be duped, like Queen Anne, his brothers, Lord Hastings, Queen Elizabeth and others.
How is it possible that Gurira’s Richard is so disarming? Perhaps because there is no feeble intention. All is to Richard’s purpose; thus, he will not party, he will plot vengeance and death to suit his ambitious hunger for power. As Richard, Gurira with “innocent” convictions declaims will be done and we are mesmerized to note whether she does it. And indeed goodly servants of the kingdom (Lord Buckingham-Sanjit De Silva, Lord Stanley-Michael Potts, Lord Hastings-Ariel Shafir, Catesby Ratcliffe-Daniel J. Watts) assist Richard in his plotting, taking on his evil without compunction, acting like good dogs.
Of course we are reminded of the adage: evil flourishes when good men do nothing. Here, the once good men plot evil, infected by evil and the spoils promised. They fall under Richard’s spell and promises, but some of them end up dead. Richard’s loves are unreliable; the moment their loyalty seems wobbly, they are dispatched to hell or heaven which is a trap door that springs open in the stage floor billowing mists and clouds which one may interpret widely.
Like horrific dictator Adolf Hitler who declaimed in Mein Kampf what he purposed with the help of henchmen he rewarded, and like other despots whose clear-eyed intentions of massacre and genocide are propelled by justifications unstopped by guilt, people stood back and watched. It is incredible that leaders/enemies observing wickedness didn’t believe what these criminals and serial killers publicly said they would do. They didn’t take them seriously until it was too late. Indeed, oftentimes, the press and important political figures or royalty were on the side of the wicked, misinterpreting their actions precisely because the wicked were upfront and to the purpose (like Putin). They believed that the despot’s honesty assured they could be controlled. But as good people watched and hypocritically lied to themselves in allowing these, like Richard III to flourish, they destroyed themselves and thousands of others.
O’Hara’s attention to them is incredibly clear. His shepherding of the ensemble to relay it with great understanding is beyond breathtaking.
Thus, ironically O’Hara and Shakespeare cast the audience as citizens who are taken in and brainwashed by Richard’s mien and stance of confidence and unaffected presentment that she will succeed. We go along on the journey and follow her plotting and gaining results while sounding no alarm. Watching Gurira’s performance, one understands the imprints of bloody despots like Cuba’s “liberator” Fidel Castro and the “bloodless,” bullying machinations of failed politicos like Donald Trump. With brilliant cunning, charm and winning manipulations, such malevolents stun and disarm their prey, exploit and drain their energy, ply them with sweet poisonous promises, then toss them away as chaff to be destroyed after they’ve been bled dry of their use. And if they find that that their loyalty is waning, as Richard does with the admirable, obedient Hastings (the superb Ariel Shafir) then they reverse course and viciously attack without mercy.
Thus, by degrees we watch Richard revel in sickly brother’s (King Edward IV-Gregg Mozgala) downward fall into death as he further divides him from George who is thrown in the tower where eventually he and the Princes and others, including his wife Anne go before they are killed expediently by Richard’s lackeys. But not before Queen Margaret (Sharon Washington) excoriates all those who have killed and let blood run as she curses them with magnificence and majestic bearing. She does this in a rant that the audience applauded as Sharon Washington walked off, head held high as if to note, yes, what I declare will come to pass. Thus, Queen Margaret adjures that Queen Elizabeth will lose her sons to violence and like she, Margaret, will have lost husband, sons, crown, kingdom and be forced to live out her years in misery and mourning.
Queen Margaret saves the best for last. Richard shall die heavy in sin, unredeemed, unable to sleep, haunted by bloody deeds, seeing those killed in nightmares. Washington returns to continue her cursing diatribe in the second part of Richard III, and the audience thrilled to her speech which she pronounced with conviction. Of course her curses that all fear come to pass, despite Richard’s insults and references to her as a witch and a hag. Richard’s epithets don’t penetrate Margaret’s soul because she has endured so much misery in the loss of her husband, crown son, family. What are the slanders of a villain who all know to be a villain that is powerless to do anything against her?
Gurira’s incredible performance as the titular Richard III is one of the best I have seen. After her Richard gains the throne the paranoia and anger sets in and she wipes out more kinsmen and loyal Lords who she suspects of treason. It is a fascinating transformation from slinking deceiver to furious despot.
Of course the irony that Richard cannot be happy even after he has the crown because he is afraid he will lose it, becomes the obsession that takes him over and changes his character toward self-destruction. The journey of enjoyment has ended and now the hell, anger, fear and punishment of self and others blossoms evilly. As Richmond (Gregg Mozgala) threatens with growing armies, Richard has nightmares that frighten him more than when he commanded evil deeds awake. In Richard’s last speech, “There is no creature loves me, And if I die no soul will pity me” in which he attempts to rouse himself out of great despair at seeing the ghosts of those he killed who are coming for him in revenge, Guriara is magnificent. I found myself empathizing with this miserable creature who believed she could get away with nefarious deeds and not have her conscience convict her. Would these current despots of the world have such a conscience to convict them as Richard’s? Happy thought.
Robert O’Hara vision and astute guidance makes this an exciting and imminently watchable and glorious production with accompanying vibrant and stirring music and light. There is great humor in many of the scenes clarified by the pacing and delivery set up by the ensemble and director. The set design, royal gothic pointed arches fixed on the revolving turntable which reveals change of scene, time and place, wonderfully manifests the substance, mood and tone of the scene as well as reinforces the action. With the blood letting of war in the last moments of fighting, superbly stylized with just enough actors to represent the warring factions, the arches have veins of blood lines, ironic yet symbolic of the gore shed on the battlefield. In other scenes the arches turn blue, gold, various colors, the turntable spins as the actors are placed between. The sets and music that align with the action are spectacular because all cohere seamlessly.
The creatives who have explored O’Hara’s vision so masterfully are Myung Hee Cho (scenic design) Dede Ayite (costume design) Alex Jainchill (lighting design) Elisheba Ittoop (sound design and original music) Nikiya Mathis (hair and wig design) Teniece Divya Johnson/Jeremy Sample (fight directors) Neil Sprouse (director of artistic sign language–beautiful, poetic, effecting and relational hand movements) Byron Easley (movement director) Teniece Divya Johnson (intimacy director) Alexander Wylie (prop manager).
Check the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park website for details to this unforgettable production of Richard III. CLICK HERE
Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma has come to New York City again. This slimmed down (cast) production directed by Daniel Fish initially opened at St Anne’s Warehouse with accompanying servings of chili and cornbread during the intermission. It gained steam to open at Circle in the Square with a multi-talented, vibrant cast, some of whom shine with resplendence. These include the principals: the transcendent, mesmerizing Damon Daunno as Curly, Rebecca Naomi Jones as Laurey, with salient assists by Mary Testa (Aunt Eller) the adorable Ali Stroker (Ado Annie) the sensitive, menacing Patrick Vaill (Jud Fry) the humorously clueless James Davis (Will Parker) and the funny, always on-point Will Brill (Ali Hakim).
Green Grow the Lilacs, (1930) by Lynn Riggs is the play source for the original 1943 version of Rodgers & Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! Riggs’ (a mixed-race white and Native American-Cherokee) text provides the lyrical, wistful opening that Rogers and Hammerstein II used as inspiration for the lyrics to the iconic song, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Cowboy Curly McClain opens the “innovative-for-its-time” musical with this serenade which is an advertisement to win over Aunt Eller and Laurey Williams who he wants to ask to the evening box social.
The corn, cattle, sky, “give off a golden emanation that is partly true and partly a trick of the imagination, focusing to keep alive, a loveliness that may pass away,” Rogers and Hammerstein II’s original script states in the stage directions lifted from Riggs. Inherent in Curly’s hopefulness that “everything will go his way,” regarding Laurey Williams, is the possibility that it won’t.
In fact the moment he ends the song, his interchange with Laurey sparks reality. Things are upended where she is concerned and indeed, the loveliness that he enjoyed for a moment has passed. Already, the themes have been presented: uncertainty, impermanence and imperfections caused by tricks of the imagination. Foreshadowed? Continual struggle ahead for Curly’s and Laurey’s relationship and for Oklahoma which is about to become the 46th state.
These themes of impermanence and imperfection coupled with the struggle for survival and the mitigating force of love which may or may not last or help, are important ones. This is especially so for the main characters Curly and Laurey who strive, argue and sacrifice for each other. Though by the play’s conclusion they fulfill their love in marriage which they celebrate with Oklahoma’s statehood, harbingers of change forebode on the horizon. Curly will become a farmer which he knows little about and in twenty-three years his community will be facing drought, deprivation, dust bowl storms and bankruptcy as the “land that is grand” fails them because of their own inability to properly husband it.
Some of this nightmare future in a place that will not fulfill its beautiful mornings is incipient in the plot development of Green Grow the Lilacs and Rodgers and Hammerstein II’s musical. The dark days ahead are certainly revealed by the end of Fish’s Oklahoma! which is thought-provoking, intriguing but also convoluted.
Fish does not change the script, except for the physical fight scene between Jud and Curly. Curly doesn’t fall on his knife; there is a pistol. But the use of design elements lighting/darkness (Scott Zielinski) staging (Fish) scenic design (Laura Jellinek) costume design (Terese Wadden) special effects (Jeremy Chernick) projection design (Joshua Thorson) and sound design (Drew Levy) morph the basic immutable tenets of Oklahoma! to reflect Fish’s circulatory vision. I found this at times confusing and at cross-purposes with characterizations and themes.
In this re-imagined Oklahoma! these are largely re-directed, sifted and filtered revealing the underpinnings of a tenuous social culture which we are encouraged to become a part of. Indeed, the lights are on with the exception of a lovely, sensual and intimate scene between Laurey and Curly and a few other scenes where the design hues change or there is total darkness.
However, despite the lighting touch of inclusiveness, Fish’s social dynamic isn’t completely realized. For example there is no clear referent to Native Americans (30 tribes inhabited the territories by the time of the play) in the community that the designers create of family-style tables sporting chili-filled crock pots that surround the playing area. There is not one eagle feather, moccasin or soft, beaded belt, headband or any obvious identifying cultural accoutrements. In this alternating stylized/realistic version of Oklahoma! this appears to be an oversight along with the reality that also appears to be diminished: laws did not protect women who were men’s chattel once married. (And the EPA amendment has still not been passed!)
In his emphasis of the conflict that grows to a great malevolence between Curly (Damon Daunno) and Jud Fry (Patrick Vaill) Fish uses design elements (darkness, sound effects, projections) and particular staging. The result impacts and twists the characterizations in the service of presenting a culture and community rather than individuals. This diminishes the inner conflicts of the characters and hinders the elucidation of themes that could lift the audience’s understanding of immutable principles of good and evil. In this version goodness is sometimes hard to come by.
Specifically, in the smokehouse scene, Fish douses the lights and then uses close up projections of the faces of Duanno and Vaill to create tension and menace. Damon Daunno as Curly and Patrick Vaill’s Jud speak in miked whispers; the effect reveals surreptitious treachery on the part of both characters. The song “Poor Jud is Dead” has a completely different tenor. It appears that Curly is as wicked intentioned, as Jud, perhaps even more so as he encourages Jud to think suicide might yield the love and companionship he seeks, an abject lie for an outsider and miscreant like Jud. Any potential humor in this scene is removed. Curly who should be the bigger person becomes the weaker in his jealousy of a man he criticizes after Jud threatens him.
In this version the scene is a disconnect. It throws down the brokenness of Jud and Curly which ends in their ominous shooting in the dark which Aunt Eller investigates and breaks up as the lights come on. The way Fish renders it, the scene makes us reflect that perhaps Curly is just better at hiding his rapaciousness toward Laurie with more enhanced social graces. His jealously unsettles him that Laurie selects Jud to be with; rather than to confront this, his childish pride takes over.
Because of the overall tone of the scene, the congenial, affable musician and expert singer and guitar player Curly who formerly delighted us, seems an incongruity in his behavior toward Jud. Granted, the scene is a difficult one for tone and tenor to strike a balance with humor. However, when the scene reveals characterizations tweaked without humor, the effect is disturbing. Curly is made unlikable and Jud becomes pitiful and wormy, in addition to being unlikable. All these machinations are over a woman? Do they even see Laurie’s identity? Or is Laurie an objectified symbol of conquest their male egos compete over? Considering Jud’s position in the community (which he himself has effected) there is no competition; why is Curly so upended?
Laurie’s characterization in this version is made shallow. Eliminated is the dream dance sequence where Laurie chooses to sacrifice herself to be with Jud in order to save Curly’s life. The love element is missing and is replaced with an incongruous solo dance (albeit Gabrielle Hamilton is an incredible, lovely talent). The thrust of why Laurie should “lay low” in her feelings for Curly are suggested in “People Will Say We’re in Love.” She must be careful around Jud; she must prevent gossip that would get back to Jud, yet suggest her true feelings for Curly to him. We find this out as she confesses how Jud is stalking her and she hears sounds of him under her window. It is not only because she is undecided about Curly, but it is also because she fears Jud and senses he will not tolerate a relationship between her and Curly. This is muddled in Fish’s version of Oklahoma!
Without the dream dance sequence with Curly, Jud, Laurie and their dream counterparts to illuminate Laurie’s inner struggle and sacrifice, all of the subsequent plot development, foreshadowing of danger and tensions between Laurie, Jud and Curly fall short of the bulls-eye. The coherence and through line become disjointed. I found the solo dance confusing and unrelated to Laurie’s conflict with Jud who haunts her dreams.
The tensions in the character of Laurie, the strain and indecision about Curly made little sense to me without the interpretation of her dream to clarify. It seemed she was being a petulant tease to frustrate and torment Curly who is adorable and cares for her. Why shouldn’t she go with him? That she is sacrificing herself to protect him from Jud is a powerful justification why she doesn’t. It should not be undercut. Meanwhile, the laws don’t protect Laurie as a woman or discourage Jud’s potential stalking behavior. She thinks she can negotiate the situation and keep Jud “at bay” by going with him. She must be her own strong woman and handle things her way, keep Jud around as useful to Aunt Eller, and somehow discourage Jud. Her tenuous position and personal strength are de-emphasized in this version.
When her decision to manipulate Jud and save Curly backfires, Jud seeks her out though she attempts to avoid him. Being near her encourages Jud to enact what he has most probably imagined all along, sexual intimacy. However, Fish’s version complicates. To add to the incongruity, the director chooses to place Laurie and Jud in darkness. Jud’s attempts at intimacy are not visible. We hear sounds between Jud and Laurie but they do not sound like a struggle and Laurie never screams “No,” or “Stop.” Is she returning his kisses out of her own “hot” desires for intimacy? We can’t tell.
Meanwhile, the maladjustment and menace in Jud is apparent from the outset and underscored throughout. The pictures of nude women he has up in the smokehouse reveal a warped sensibility toward women and unfilled expectations. That he doesn’t know the difference between love or sex is manifest in his obsession for Laurie. That he might force himself on her is clearly foreshadowed in her fear and his threats against Curly being with Laurie. Why it is called into question with a “lights-out” scene between Laurie and Jud? This is not conducive to clarifying their characterizations.
Not being able to “see” what happens raises questions. Is Laurie enticed by Jud or is he misreading her? Is this a #metoo moment (an anachronism) in a time when men did what they pleased with women and rarely answered for it unless they were a different race? In the original script and other versions, it is a definite #metoo moment, that perhaps even Justice Brett Kavanaugh might acknowledge. (Well, maybe not.) The power and profound meaning of this is lost in this version. The justification for Laurie having the courage to throw Jud off the property is obviated as is her evolution as a character who has seen the light. Sadly, her insults of Jud seem harsh, if he has not grossly pushed himself on her.
Overall, the scene between them should be to the purpose that “he has gone too far,” and has misinterpreted her kindnesses to him as interest. Other Oklahoma! versions portray Laure’s characterization with coherence and logic. The attempted molestation empowers Laurie to kick him off the property. She draws the line; she will sacrifice herself no longer to protect Curly from Jud’s wickedness. She is no longer afraid which is a big step for her. In 1907 the law will not protect her, she will ask Curly to. It is a risk she takes. Does she have another choice?
It is an important moment and it has been re-characterized, supplanting it with the concept that Jud can’t catch a break and everyone in the community isolates and rejects him unfairly. That Jud creates the situation for himself is buried in this version. That he is the cause of his own problems, a truth he refuses to acknowledge or attempt to correct, is obscured. Jud is his own victim, the point of the humor in the song Curly initiates about him. His whines and resentments are weaknesses as is his impulse for revenge. (Unfortunately, upon closer inspection in modern day parlance he might be a Trump supporting sexual pervert, Incel or a Uni-bomber type in the making. UH OH. Have I gone too far?)
Jud cannot get up and over his jealousy of Curly and obsession with Laurie. Curly doesn’t let his jealousy overtake him nor is he obsessed with Laurie; he loves her. There is a difference. Fish’s version muddies the contrasts between the two men. Curly understands himself and Jud. Jud lacks the will to understand that he is on the road to suicide or murder and doesn’t appear to want to select another path.
But rather than to reach out for help and crawl out of his hole to stop festering (Curly’s description of his behavior) he feeds his resentments and his victimization and remains apart, except when he can purchase “The Little Wonder” to harm Curly and when he goes to the social event to be with Laurie. He ignores his own faults and blames an unloving, heartless community which apparently has been a routine of his in his past. The fact that Fish’s casting of Jud does not reflect a member of another ethnic or racial group apart from this generally friendly community makes this all the more puzzling. We can only conclude he brings about his own demise, a tragedy of the human condition.
Fish slices away at the substance of the two protagonist’s inner conflicts that make them endearing and readily identifiable to us. He modifies Jud’s characterization which confuses, and de limits his character, draining him from being the self-harming tragic figure he is. Thankfully, the humor and relationships between Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) and her lovers Ali (Will Brill) and Will Parker (James Davis) brighten and thrill, all because of the excellent actors’ exuberance. They provide the fun, frolic and wise counterparts to Laurie’s and Curly’s sturm und drang. Directors impose their visions on productions and that is fine. But it should be effected with coherence, logic, clarity and balance. To my feeble mind, this version didn’t satisfactorily land.
This is especially so at the conclusion of Fish’s Oklahoma!. SPOILER ALERT! (Do not read this section; go to the last paragraph) The climax occurs not in Jud falling on his knife, but in Curly shooting him with a gun Jud gives him. (I couldn’t see this with Jud’s back to me…problematic staging.) Jud’s blood splatters Curly’s and Laurie’s white wedding outfits. This is the gruesome wedding present Jud bestows on them effected by Curly. The audience shock is palpable. That is the point, albeit gratuitous since Curly has Laurie and he should not be jealous or feel malevolently toward Jud. Thus, this intentional shooting of Jud appears strange; but because of the staging, I couldn’t see the death scene action, just the blood splattering.
The trial afterward becomes unjust justice of folks not wanting federal law (though they are now a state). Indeed, the entire community of cowpokes, farmers and their gals that many of the audience have broken cornbread with are complicit in vindicating Curly of Jud’s questionable death. Of course Jud is free of Curly and Laurie, but for the rest of their lives, remembrances of their wedding day are tainted by his blood.
The point is well taken. Regardless, the vital fact is that now Curly and especially Laurie are free of Jud who threatened their lives and personal sanctity. That the town forgives him and gives Curly a second chance is their justice. Indeed, only the audience was around to “see” the dark clouds in the scene between Curly and Jud. However, at the conclusion when Curly sings “everything’s going my way,” for Oklahomans, and audience members who know the state’s history in the 20th century, this is a supreme irony.
Fish, the cast and the creatives are to be lauded for taking the risks they did to reformulate Oklahoma! Kudos especially goes to the Orchestra: Nathan Koci, Joe Brent, Brett Parnell, Hilary Hawke, Sarah Goldfeather, Leah Coloff, Eleonore Oppenheim, John Miller.
All involved did a superb job in effecting Fish’s vision. That the incongruities and convolutions in this version were startling to me is of little consequence.
The original version and subsequent versions retain the depth and continuity of characterization, though the musical may be flawed if the directors do not accommodate for how the roles of Native Americans were seminal in the evolution of Oklahoma to statehood. But people will continue to see Oklahoma! because of its place in the historical musical canon. This version should be seen because of Fish’s conceptualizations and the creative designers’ and ensemble’s live performance spectacle which audience members will, at the last, appreciate.
Oklahoma! runs for two hours and forty-five minutes with one intermission at Circle in the Square (1633 Broadway…50th Street). For tickets go to the website by CLICKING HERE.