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‘Richard III’ Shakespeare in the Park, a Stunning Achievement

Ali Stroker, Michael Potts, Danai Gurira, Sanjit De Silva, and Xavier Pacheco in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Ali Stroker and Danai Gurira in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

The company of the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Sharon Washington in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Ali Stroker and Heather Alicia Simms in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Danai Gurira and Matthew August Jeffers in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Gregg Mozgala in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Michael Potts and Danai Gurira in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Sam Duncan, Matthew August Jeffers, Thaddeus S. Fitzpatrick, Wyatt Cirbus, and Heather Alicia Simms in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. (Joan Marcus)

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.

Daniel J. Watts and Danai Gurira in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Danai Gurira in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Sharon Washington and Sanjit De Silva in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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.

Daniel J. Watts and Ariel Shafir in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III, directed by Robert O’Hara, running at The Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 17. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

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

‘By the way, Meet Vera Stark’ by Lynn Nottage at The Signature Theatre

By the way Meet Vera Stark, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms, Pershing Square Signature Center, Kamilah Forbes, Lynn Nottage

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, Heather Alicia Simms in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark’, written by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kamilah Forbes (Joan Marcus)

Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at the Pershing Square Signature Center is a comical/tragic study in black Hollywood’s greats that few recognize because the racism and oppression in the nation was also reflected in Hollywood institutions. Nottage follows the career of black actress Vera Stark across seven decades and examines how she fared while the roles for black women remained static as maids, servants, slaves and menials. The setting is Hollywood, but the time shifts from 1933 (film studio and apartment) to 1973 on Brad Donovan’s Hollywood TV show and 2003 during a Hollywood film colloquium.

We are first introduced to the incomparable Vera Stark (Jessica Frances Dukes) in the 1930s when she is young, beautiful, vibrant and naive about launching her career in the movies. Working as a maid for “America’s little sweetie pie” Gloria Mitchell (Jenni Barber), Vera creates her own opportunities and lands the prized role as a maid in a picture starring two of her friends and Gloria Mitchell called The Belle of New Orleans.

Nottage’s characterization of Vera Stark reveals the actor’s assiduous work ethic, her dogged ambition and supreme cleverness at jiving the system and environment she is in. She negotiates helping Gloria Mitchell with everything from her image and wearing the right clothes, to reading lines with her for the audition that Gloria needs to get a plum part which will strengthen her career. It is this audition that Vera hopes to also parlay into a role for herself to eventually rise up the ladder of stardom.

Jessica Frances Dukes, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage, Kamilah Forbes

Jessica Frances Dukes in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark,’ by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kamilah Forbes (Joan Marcus)

Act I is filled with humor that indicates the sub rosa black culture’s fronting and milking the stereotypes whites have of them behind their backs. Joined by her friend Lottie McBride (the fine Heather Alicia Simms) who also has come to Hollywood and has eaten herself out of house and home to play a mammy slave part to no avail, their playfulness and criticism of their circumstances indicates they are survivors and will hang on until they achieve what they want, though the roles available to them are as slaves, maids and servants.

We meet another “high yellow” black actress Anna Mae Simpkins (the funny Carra Patterson) a quasi friend who is looking to advance herself by dating various directors and other filmmakers and passing herself off as a Brazilian. The interactions between the women and a foreign director are beyond hysterical, and Nottage has fun with turning assumptions about blacks on their head. When the director assumes that all blacks come from a slave background, Vera and Lottie act the parts of the oppressed for him with hysterical precision mugging the stereotypes, convincing the director to give them parts in his film.

Act I presents the backstory of these four women before they achieve artistic greatness in the film The Belle of New Orleans which all of them are cast in. The beauty of this production is how Nottage chronicles the development of Vera Stark. So we actually get to see the film in black and white. And all of the actresses are superb, placed into the film’s reality. On stage and in real life, these women, Lottie, Gloria, Anna Mae and Vera are “larger than life.” However, on film the actresses give the roles they play a resonance and authenticity. We understand why and how (based on the last moments of the film), the film is a great and iconic one in the annals of film history and often the subject of film colloquiums.

After the screening of The Belle of New Orleans, Herb Forrester (Warner Miller) steps out from the curtain and we realize that he has just shown the film at a colloquium in Hollywood. As Forrester proceeds, we hear a disposition about Vera Stark’s identity as a black actress and how she was able to make a life and career for herself despite the demeaning roles black men and women played as slaves, helpers, servants, chauffeurs, etc., reflecting the culture at large. Joined by Carmen Levy-Green (Heather Alicia Simms) and Afua Assata Ejobo (Carra Patterson) we are struck by the cultural ironies as these heady intellectuals play the elites while they dissect Vera Stark and cast her “blackness” in philosophical racial identities that Nottage turns into hysterical objectifications.

Jessica Frances Dukes, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Lynn Nottage, Kamilah Forbes

(L to R): Carra Patterson, Heather Alicia Simms, Warner Miller in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark, directed by Kamilah Forbes, written by Lynn Nottage (Joan Marcus)

The humor as the two women argue about Vera Stark’s identity, gender and racial politics with Forrester, who appears to deal with them in all his glorious paternalism, is just great. Act II brings all the tropes together and the liveliness of the conflict between the black male and the two female guests is superbly done.

Even more superb is the flashback to a tape of the afternoon talk show (a la Merv Griffin style) that stars host Brad Donovan with guest, the great black actress Vera Stark. Forrester plays the taped interview with Vera Stark to reveal what happened to her after she had her Hollywood career that never advanced beyond the cultural stereotypes and roles that the white paternalistic studio heads created for her.

In this taped session which we see live, Jessica Frances Dukes appears more like a version of every starlet who faded irretrievably into old age and alcoholism and speaks with a wobbly voice rather like Katherine Hepburn’s. Every moment of the taping, the diva, Vera Stark is “on.” She sings a bit and entertains with humor another guest, Peter Rhys-Davies (Manoel Felciano). All goes swimmingly as Vera gets drunker and drunker until surprise! Donovan trots out Gloria Mitchell so the women have a reunion to discuss The Belle of New Orleans. The difference between how Vera Stark has aged and how Gloria Mitchell has aged is striking and revelatory. Gloria Mitchell who had a career, and the substantial money to take care of her body looks the same. Vera Stark, who has allowed the excesses of alcohol and demeaning parts to overtake her soul, has aged and appears to be a tragic figure.

Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber, By the way Meet Vera Stark, Kamilah Forbes, Lynn Nottage

(L to R): Jessica Frances Dukes, Jenni Barber in ‘By the way Meet Vera Stark,’ (Joan Marcus)

This is a subtle devastation which the host doesn’t appear to “get,” but which Vera Stark finally does. And in an epiphany she relates that she is still enslaved to a role she played decades ago. Now, once again, she must confront Gloria Mitchell and the role of Tilly, though she has gone on to do other parts during her career she perceived she made for herself. Only with this final confrontation, Vera realizes she has allowed the culture to dupe her. And she vows, it is for the last time. Dukes’ Vera is fabulous in this section and the ensemble fields her beautifully.

How Nottage concludes the third segment with Forrester, Levy Green and Ejobo continuing to disagree with each other’s dialectic about Vera Stark is both humorous and sardonic. For they have completely missed the point which we clearly have seen in the segments. Vera Stark was morphed by the circumstances of Hollywood. The rumors of how she ended her life are even more ironic as we listen to the elites discuss a woman they knew very little about. Then Nottage in the last few minutes configures another fabulous revelation that is poignant and beautiful. You will just have to see this wonderful production to appreciate it for yourself.

By the way, Meet Vera Stark runs with one intermission until 10th of March at the Pershing Square Signature Center. You can pick up tickets by CLICKING HERE.

Artistic Creatives: Clint Ramos (Scenic Design) Dede M. Ayite (Costume Design) Matt Frey (Lighting Design) Mikaal Sulaiman (Sound Design) KAtherine Freer (Projetion Design) Daniel Kluger (Composer) Mia Neal (Hair and Wig Design)

 

 

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