Thursday, February 21, 2008

Finding Richard

One of my primary reasons for starting this blog was to generate a forum for serious and substantive thinking about Providence's arts scene. For whatever reason--the city's small size and relative intimacy; a peculiar aversion to intellectualism or an admirable distaste for pretension; an established, historical collegiality among local performative and critical organs--Providence's reviewers are remarkably gentle. What I mean is not that our reviewers always give "good" reviews, though they nearly always do, but that they rarely engage in the provocative and important work of critical rough-housing. It's not that I would have Bill Rodriguez, Michael Janusonis, or Channing Gray betray their honest impressions or their natures to give us gratuitously scathing reviews. But I would love for them to challenge us, and the productions they review (be they culinary, theatrical, or cinematic), with a vigorous intellectual curiosity.

Take, for example, Channing Gray's review of Trinity Repertory Theater's Richard III. After describing the "in-your-face" lighting and "gun-toting soldiers" (breathlessly hyphenated descriptions being the lingua franca of Providence arts writers) he informs us that this is "free-wheeling" and "muscular" Shakespeare. And what should follow these compelling descriptors but...a summary of Richard III. I understand the importance of summary in a review; and if I had not visited Wikipedia's Richard III article before seeing the show I would surely have been entirely shut out from it. But by summarizing the show--that is, by focusing on what Shakespeare wrote rather than what Trinity Rep gives us--Gray does a real disservice to this particular performance and to the people of Providence. We never learn what makes this show "free-wheeling" and we never learn if the show is "muscular" because of its moral conviction, its violent barbarity, or its rhetorical audacity. A serious review, in other words, would at least try to explain what Kevin Moriarty and the actors of Trinity Rep tell us about Richard III or our own elected officials or powerful public officials anywhere or simply power, wherever and by whomever it is held. On these questions, Gray is mute.

I was no fan of the show myself; it was unmoored from any place or time, and thus from any real character or consequence. Channing Gray notes that the characters carry "guns, not swords," and are dressed in "modern military getups." These cosmetic decisions, I guess, transmit existential truths; for Gray, they help make the play's "political message seem all the more relevant." And what "political message" is that? How does setting the play in an unnamed place in an indeterminate time reify its "political message"? These are the sorts of questions that matter; these are the questions that need to be asked to challenge audience members and troupe members alike. The glib bromide about Shakespeare's relevance getting a boost from guns and getup means nothing and provokes nothing.

Still, the show has real strengths. Brian McEleney's Richard III is more snake (or serpent) than wolf: his sibilant feints and manipulations work because he knows that they are all he has. In a world governed by natural law his physical deformities are a liability, so he must create a parallel world--a play, even, of which he is both star and director. Early in the evening I doubted this Richard's menace and his conviction--he seemed almost too theatrical to survive real slings and arrows--but by the time that Lord Hastings, confident in his standing with Richard, whispers to a fellow lord "I think there's never a man in Christendom/That can less hide his love or hate than he;/For by his face straight shall you know his heart" I had come to see his power to invent and to act as his only weapon. Jonathan Bate, in an essay for Harper's (April, 2007), suggests that "Shakespeare's most successful characters are the best actors"; McEleney, clearly, was thinking the same thing.

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