“Now is the Winter of our Discontent,” rings out offstage, as silent Lady Anne (Tiffany Harrison) has laid at the audience’s feet the first of many forlorn coats that signify their absent—and murdered—wearers, and Subterranean Shakespeare’s production of The Bard’s Richard III gets underway at the Berkeley Art Center.
These memorials are placed, and the famous speech barely undertaken, when Edward IV (Mark Jordan) and his consort Elizabeth (Kerry Gudjohnsen) process through, with petite motorcade waves t o their subjects, wearing coronets that are more like garlands of gold filament . . . to be followed by Edward’s brother in the House of York, Richard of Gloucester (Charlie Goldenhawk Reaves), in black leather jacket, shades and earrings, trailing one foot behind in a soft shoe while the other leads in motorcycle boot, one hand in pocket as the other gesticulates, bemoaning “my own deformity” and that since he can’t be a lover, he “must prove a villain.”
Moving in relentlessly jerky forward motion like some reptile, his bad foot dragging against his dogged forward progress, Richard in short order reveals his “subtle, false and treacherous” plans to slide into power on a slick of blood; eases his gentle and lucid brother the Duke of Clarence (Maureen-The resa Williams) into prison; negotiates with two thugs (Brian Levy and Edward Norton) to make sure Clarence will never re-emerge; buttonholes Hastings (Gary Dailey) as he’s sprung from slam and tossed his wallet; and seduces the contemptuous Lady Anne (“W onderful when devils tell the truth!” . . . “More wonderful when angels are angry!”) in a hot and twisted tête-à-tête that tests director Jeremy Cole’s mettle at blocking a nasty yet amorous duel for mastery of the other, with torrid results.
When the so dden late winter of discontent is just over, it’s hard to imagine sitting still for the trap-door spider antics of Shakespeare’s great villain. But just a scene or two of this active, lucid show dispels any hesitation, and fascination with this Machiavell ian dastard’s steamroller approach to climbing to the top takes over. The audience visibly hangs on every sublime—if barbed—word.
Entrance comes hard on exit as the scenes turn over quickly, yet the usual rush of insouciant “Shakespeare Festivalese” does n’t play a part in the salutary speed of the staging. There’s dynamics aplenty, especially in the quiet, agonizing moments when Clarence tells his portentious dream to his sympathetic jailer, Brakenbury (Mark Jordan again), and in his care falls asleep—on ly to wake to his brother’s hired assassins, who’ve barged in with forged warrant to disabuse him of his optimism, his reasonableness and his life.
The cast of a dozen—also including Jean Forsman, Ryan Kasimir, Stuart Hall and Jack Halton—work together v ery well as a tight ensemble, most pulling double or triple duty in fleshing out multiple roles, major and minor. At the center, Charlie Goldenhawk Reaves plays Richard with a glint in his eye and explosions of wild laughter at his own bloody thoughts, as he pretends pious indifference to the proffered crown (flanked by two skittish churchmen) yet scoops it up after destroying the succession, trading leather jacket for white tie and black tails (though keeping shades and sheath knife for the coronation). Friend and foe alike are relieved of their jackets and hustled to their fates when they prove inconvenient, leaving the bereaved women—the former queens as well as Richard’s own mother—to curse the tyrant. Costumer Paula Gruber’s scheme of basic black, re lieved only by Queen Margaret (Jean Forsman) in a bloody red gown worthy of a Cassandra and Edward IV’s paisley dressing gown, as he hacks and coughs to death in a wheelchair before his stonyfaced yet fractious court, proves worthy to convey the somber ai r and monochrome life of courtly intrigue and suspicion. There’s no scenery; the cast is deployed skillfully up and down a narrow corridor between an audience on two sides, playing toe-to-toe with great aplomb.
Towards the conclusion, when a kind of claustrophobic hysteria grips the plot in a melodramatic vise, the poor acoustics of the Art Center scatter the loud voices hurrying toward disaster. Sub Shakes is trying to raise funds to make a stage at the Unitarian Fellowship. It’s a worthy effort, as is shown by this solid show, featuring the Bay Area debut of an estimable director, excellent string shadings of tableaux and dialogue by violinist Hal Hughes. It offers a vision of civic disaster that asks, “Why should calamity be full of words?” It’s answered implicitly by that strange, crippled visionary of unlimited evil, when he replies to Elizabeth’s acid, “What can thou pray to swear by now?” with: “The time to come!”
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday through May 20 at Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St. (at Rose) in Live Oak Park. $12-$17.
After the Daily Planet went to press with last Friday’s review of Carol Reed’s classic film The Fallen Idol, we learned that Landmark Theaters had canceled its East Bay engagement. Though the film is not yet available on DVD, it is available on VHS.