Recently, when we visited a dress rehearsal for the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre’s rendition of Richard III, we intuited, from our brief visit, that the play was going to be a winner. After seeing a performance of the finished show this past week we can now pat the head of our intuition. But just not right enough.
As we were leaving the performance we saw, a young person on our right said: “That was the best Shakespeare I’ve ever experienced.”
With due and profound respect to other Richards we have loved to hate—Olivier, Pacino, McKellen—we must concur with the lad’s view.
Three big reasons won us over to this position:
As far as the acting, you’ll see and hear excellence first and foremost in Dan Matisa, a New Jersey veteran who has participated in each season of the AST. Matisa plays the eponymous lead and gives a quietness and inwardness to Richard that isn’t generic and which serves, in truth, to stretch the character from Evil Incarnate to there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-(and our lowly rank)-go-we.
Rumor has it that this is Matisa’s first lead performance at AST. It cannot be his last.
In four crucial roles, four women also excel: Heather Dupree (as Queen Margaret), Laurie Pascale (as the Duchess of York), Nisi Sturgis (as Queen Elizabeth), and Bri Sudia (as Lady Anne).
IMPORTANT NOTE: When a whole cast is indelibly in tandem—listening and playing off one another so naturally as to come across as family—it is unfair to pick out just a few people, but we must.
We’ll leave with pointing out a Little Rock native named Mark Hansen whose one scene as King Edward is almost a showstopper. Not only does he control his voice so expertly and intuitively that he can go from whispered aside to grief-filled shouting without being anything but utterly credible, but his eyes even deliver a noticeable and believable intensity.
For people like us who are intimidated by the prospect of a live performance of Shakespeare (we are apt to prefer our Shakespeare on tape, where we can rewind bits that lose us), this year’s Richard III at the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre in Conway, Arkansas (!) is the one to see to forever rid yourself of that false fear—that false, but real-seeming, fear. Instead of being operatic and stiff, this year’s RICHARD III is warm and intimate and inviting.
Hard as it can be to believe, these ages hence, Shakespeare wrote for people—including modern-day people—who simply love their drama filled with action and intrigue and humor and romance (if not erotica). This year, the AST players prove once and for all that Shakespeare wrote for the streets. He wrote for us.
IMPORTANT NOTE 2: There will be just TWO more performances of Richard III.
SUMMARY 1: The AST production of Richard III is essential viewing, especially for those of us who don’t yet trust Shakespeare to speak to us clearly and naturally. In this staging, he does.
SUMMARY 2: The best Shakespeare you’ll ever experience?
Turned on and fired up by Richard III, we have put our ears to the ground to hear what is being said about the other productions, all of which we are now resolute to experience first-hand:
IMPORTANT NOTE 4: For dates, times, and prices for all these plays, visit: www.arkshakes.com
FINAL IMPORTANT NOTE: This is not a paid advertisement. We here at The Oxford American are sincerely excited by what we have experienced so far at this year’s Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre and what we, now, are very, very eager to see. Three Oxford Americaners attended the Richard III performance that we reviewed above and each of us, independently of one another but in tandem, loved it and praised it and now recommend it fully to anybody seeking a memorable theater-going experience.
In fact, here are two more reviews of the same Richard III performance by two other OA’ers.
1. The intimate staging—great actors performing at very close range. Every word is intelligible, which makes the language barrier disappear.
2. Dan Matisa. As Richard III, Matisa combines the perverse charisma of John Malkovich with the explosive intensity of Robert DeNiro. He embodies the worst kind of evil—the kind that connives and ingratiates while grinning like a leprechaun. Matisa is like the third drink: the one that turns sobriety into craving, the one that turns a pleasant evening into a hedonistic night. He is vexingly addictive.
3. The women. There are many juicy roles for women in this play. Heather Dupree is stunning as Queen Margaret, the wrathful widow spewing curses upon the usurpers. Dupree inspires terrible thoughts—remember the worst you have ever felt and then imagine confronting the one who caused it. “I am hungry for revenge,” she moans: “That I may live to say, the dog is dead!” Vengeance is a central theme in this play, and Dupree’s leonine performance makes you uncomfortably aware that it is not an unhinged passion but a justifiable one.
4. The insults. The only thing better than Dan Matisa’s rendering of villainy is the avalanche of invective the script pounds him with. He is a dog, a hedgehog, an abortive rooting hog, a lump of foul deformity, a carnal cur, a poisoned hunchbacked toad.
5. The humor. Especially the scene in which Matias as Richard transforms into a pious, retiring, modest soul who coyly refuses the crown even though a mob of citizens is beseeching him to take it. —CAF
AST really pulled this one off. Being so close to the action—all seating is on the stage for Richard III and for the children’s version of The Tempest—five-year-olds and seventy-year-olds were laughing at the same jokes and gasping at the same betrayals. That’s how real the drama feels at this proximity. Even if you miss a phrase or two, Richard III is that rare Shakespeare gem that is easy for Elizabethan novices to understand. The intense visuals—beautiful Victorian-era costumes, rousing fight scenes—keep the plot accessible and fresh. This is not one of those plays where onstage audience members are forced to engage with the actors...but you will be so close to the heart of things that you might need to restrain yourself. —MML