St. Louis Shakespeare Stages a Sharp, Modern Richard III 

click to enlarge Richard (Charlie Barron) woos Ann Neville (Jennifer Theby-Quinn)

PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB

Richard (Charlie Barron) woos Ann Neville (Jennifer Theby-Quinn)

John Barrymore, the first great Richard III on the American stage, once endured a lone guffaw from the audience upon his delivery of Richard's famous line, "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Barrymore responded with the indignant ad-lib, "Make haste, and saddle yonder braying ass." The old man would have gone hoarse firing off rejoinders to the audience at the Ivory Theatre Saturday night, who laughed in response to even the most heinous of Richard's many murders.

Which is not to blame Charlie Barron, who makes for a well-rounded and thoroughly seductive Richard III in St. Louis Shakespeare's current production of the play. Nor is it due to any fault of his co-stars or director Suki Peters. This moderately excised version of Shakespeare's play focuses on Richard III (hobbled by a heavy limp but neither ugly nor disfigured) and the four queens who at various times oppose him. It's a fast-moving, enthralling show that features a wealth of strong performances, and Barron is flat-out excellent as the grinning monster who would destroy the world in order to rule it.

click to enlarge Barron makes a seductive Richard. - PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB
  • PHOTO BY JOHN LAMB
  • Barron makes a seductive Richard.

So why did his asides to the audience generate such frequent laughter? Barron gives him a dark charm, sure, but I suspect we've seen too many pale imitations of Richard's brand of charismatic anti-hero over the years to be stunned into silence by the original's monstrousness at this point. It's an election year after all; a murderer's row of power-hungry li'l Richards parade across our various screens every few minutes. If the actual threat of carpet-bombing several nations' worth of people can't hold our interest for more than a day, what hope does a mere child killer like Richard have?

Early on he woos Ann Neville (Jennifer Theby-Quinn) in sight of her husband's bloody corpse — and that's a corpse Richard made, which Anne knows. Set between looming stone staircases that flank the stage, Richard makes his case that he slew Anne's husband out of duty (there was a war at the time), and because her beauty haunted him so much that he would "undertake the death of all the world, so I might live one hour in your sweet bosom." Theby-Quinn and Barron together race through this scene as if in a kind of madness, he from love and she from rage. The pallbearers watch the duo, baffled by their bizarre courtship. Barron lunges forward, pushing her against the stairs, both of them on their knees. It's one of a dozen scenes Peters has engineered that work as both tableau and as visual storytelling. (And full marks to costume designer J.C. Krajcik for embellishing these scenes with such rich colors.) A widowed noblewoman whose family was on the losing side of a war is in a very precarious situation — unless she marries someone from the winning family. Richard offers her a lifeline, which she leaves to ponder.

And then he turns to the audience with a knowing grin and spreads his hands, as if even he can't believe his effrontery, and we laugh.

The laughter should come less naturally when he hires a pair of assassins to kill his brother George, or arranges for the murder of his nephews, or returns to the stage toying with Anne's wedding ring and blithely announces she's dead. It's harder still not to root for him at this point — this handsome, intelligent viper with the silver tongue makes betrayal an art. All of his schemes are bearing fruit, and his way to the throne is clear. When he and his pal Buckingham (the excellent John Foughty) stage-manage his "reluctant" ascension to the throne, there's a sense of relief. He's done it, and now the killing can cease.

Can, but doesn't.

Eager to consolidate his hard-won power, Richard goes about bumping off loyal friends out of paranoia. Barron becomes more frantic, his movements jerky and his voice brittle as Richard's body count grows. Elizabeth (Michelle Hand), the deposed queen and widow of Richard's oldest brother, argues him to a standstill in another brilliant scene that demonstrates the human cost evil takes when it's permitted to flourish. She's lost everything — power, husband, children, her very future — and there she stands, battling to the last against the face of leering, cocky evil. Her desperate stand is echoed in a later scene by the Earl of Oxford (Maxwell Knocke), when Oxford stands with allies who intend to overthrow Richard: "Every man's conscience is a thousand swords, to fight against that bloody homicide."

Sound designer Ted Drury has martial drums beating throughout the show-ending Battle of Bosworth Field. When Richard is struck down and calls out for a horse, again the crowd on Saturday bizarrely laughed. But not quite loudly enough to drown out those war drums, which falter and die with Richard.

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