Most of the outdoor fare offered at Shakespeare festivals around the country, including Lexington's SummerFest, feature the bard's more popular comedies or tragedies. It's not uncommon for folks to be exposed to countless productions of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream in a lifetime but few, if any, see Shakespeare's historical plays. That makes SummerFest's production of Richard III a rare treat.
Directed by Sidney Shaw and here set in 19th-century Brazil, Richard III is a pleasantly paced, solid introduction to Shakespeare's historical canon.
A few stellar performers outshine merely adequate ones, but the play is well executed and easily digestible, particularly considering that the plot is a difficult one to follow.
In simple terms, Richard III depicts the bloody rise to power of the king who ruled England from 1483 to 1485. The play was programmed as part of the "monsters" trio of SummerFest plays this year, which includes Frankenstein and The Rocky Horror Show.
Of course, Richard is a coveted role among actors for a reason, and Dmetrius Conley makes it his own. His hunchback mannerisms and shifting personality is by far the highlight of the play. The early asides to the audience, the back-door negotiations with other characters, and the fiendish plotting are all delivered with devilish charm. We ought to despise his actions, but they are fascinating.
Conley terrifically demonstrates Richard's ability to coerce and manipulate undetected, yet there are times, particularly in a moving scene with his mother, the Duchess of York (played by Tonda-Leah Fields), when we approach pitying him. Conley plays the complicated villain with delightful complexity and verve.
Other notable performances include Robert Parks Johnson as Lord Hastings, Timothy Hull as the Duke of Buckingham, and brief but potent appearances by Walter Tunis, a Herald-Leader contributing writer, as King Edward and Bianca Spriggs as the prophetic Queen Margaret.
Setting the play in Brazil is an interesting choice, and Shaw declares in his program notes that, like Shakespeare, he didn't want to let the truth get in the way of a good story. However, the South American setting seemed largely irrelevant except for key scenes, notably a Carnival dance at the opening, and inspired costuming by Kirsten Aurelius.
Danny Bowling deserves praise for his lighting design. The wash of red covering the doomed Richard in a particularly haunting scene as he dreams of those he has murdered was very well executed.
The most appealing aspect of this production is director Shaw's careful attention to rhythm and pace. The show proceeds comfortably, and it's easy to follow the complicated plight of Richard, thanks also in part to veteran actors leading the charge. Overall, it's a terrific introduction for the many folks who have never seen one of Shakespeare's legendary histories.