No L.A.-area theater company does Shakespeare better than Glendale’s A Noise Within.  Fans of the Bard need only check out their latest production, The Tragedy Of King Richard III, for proof positive that ANW is indeed “California’s Home For The Classics.”  From its stellar cast of classically trained pros to its masterful direction by Geoff Elliott to its absolutely stunning design, this is a Richard III that’s beautifully acted, brilliantly conceived, and as exciting as any classic Hollywood adventure epic.

It helps that Richard III has a crackerjack storyline, inspired as they say “by actual events.”

It’s the early 1480s and England is enjoying a much needed respite from war under King Edward IV (Apollo Dukakis). Only one member of the nobility seems entirely dissatisfied with the status quo, and that royal is the King’s jealous, power-hungry brother Richard (Steve Weingartner), cursed (according to Shakespeare) with three strikes against him: a hunchback, a withered arm, and a limp.  In Richard’s case, however, three strikes definitely do not mean out, and though seventh in line to the throne, he sets in motion a plot to get rid of numbers one through six, beginning with his older brother Clarence (Bo Foxworth). Others who end up on Richard’s hit list are any noblemen who happen to be loyal to Edward’s pre-teen sons (Arlen Smith and Nicholas Mendez), and that includes Lord Hastings (Mitchell Edmonds) and ultimately the two boys themselves. It takes Henry, Early of Richmond (Freddy Douglas) to finally put an end to Richard’s reign of terror, uniting the oft-warring families of Lancaster and York, and thus ending the War Of The Roses and founding the Tudor line of Kings.

A humdinger of a plot in a humdinger of a play given a humdinger of a production–this is A Noise Within’s latest Shakespearean undertaking, one of their best ever.

Elliott’s staging is dynamic indeed, beginning even before lights-up with the surround-sounds of battle filling the darkened theater, lights slowing rising upon the striking tableau of King Edward, his wife Queen Elizabeth (Susan Angelo), and assorted noblemen and soldiers, and then, through the magic of Ken Booth’s superb lighting design, “panning” our attention over to a figure lurking in our midst.  It is Richard, Duke Of Gloucester, stooped over (yet somehow standing tall) and intoning one of Shakespeare’s most oft-quoted lines, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

From these opening moments to Richard’s eleventh-hour cry of “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, Weingartner and Elliott hold us in the palm of their hands in scene after scene of political intrigue, jealousy, treachery, madness, and most exciting of all, battlefield action, with hair-raising fight choreography courtesy of Ken Merckx, Jr. and Spike Steingasser.

If ever a production can be said to “belong” to one actor in particular, then this Richard III belongs to its brilliant star. Weingartner creates a Richard so multidimensional that we find ourselves torn between righteous disgust at his dastardly deeds and gleeful astonishment at his world-class chutzpah.  Never is this more true than in an early scene between Richard and Lady Anne (Lenne Klingaman), whose husband is one of the first victims of Richard’s quest for power. With the Prince Of Wales’ bloody corpse lying on a stretcher smack dab in front of them, Richard manages to turn Anne’s hatred for him into swooning desire, all in a matter of minutes.  In a pair of absolutely breathtaking performances, Weingartner and Klingaman turn this scene into the most edge-of-your-seat enthralling ten minutes of Shakespeare I can recall experiencing.

It would be easiest simply to play Richard as a villain, a sort of Snidely Whiplash with a hunchback, but Weingartner makes him so much more.  His Richard is a man who has overcome his physical deformities through the force of his personality, who can seduce a woman one minute, cry crocodile tears the next, then tell whopping lies with the straightest of faces. With a Richard immune to any sense of right and wrong, it’s easy to imagine Weingarter’s would-be King responding to moral indignation with a blasé “Whatever…,” all the while smiling inwardly about how once again he’s pulled something over on yet another victim.  It’s a deliciously multi-layered and hugely charismatic performance.

In addition to the exquisite Klingaman, a trio of blue-ribbon actors make the strongest impressions among the play’s many supporting players.  In the role of Elizabeth, Angelo moves from an elegant, haughty queen to a disheveled wreck of a woman, and ANW First Lady Deborah Strang sinks her teeth deep into the skin of Henry VI’s widow Margaret, a one-time queen long descended into madness.  On the male side, it’s the dashing Douglas, ANW’s resident Brit, whose electric eleventh hour appearance as Richmond finally provides King Richard with a threat to be reckoned with. An unrecognizable Douglas also doubles persuasively as one of a pair of murderers in Act 1, the other played by Daniel Allen Kent, who also impresses as Sir Richard Ratcliffe.

There’s not a weak link in the entire cast, which also includes Blake Anthony, Shaun Anthony, Rob Beddall, Lewis Blanchard, Matt Henerson, Kyle Moore, George Olesky, Jeremy Rabb, and Brady Rubin, doing excellent work each and every one. The ensemble is completed by Sarah Chang, Katie Elsaesser, Stefan Tabnecki, Caitlyn Tella, and MaryEileen Young.

In addition to Elliott’s assured, imaginative direction (he stages one scene in the theatrical equivalent of split-screen), the production benefits from its gifted design team. Darcy Scanlin’s set evokes the stone walls of medieval castles while doubling as battlefields and dungeons, among other locales.  It’s been beautifully lit by Booth, with a dazzling array of costumes designed by Nikki Delhomme.  Monica Lisa Sabedra gets a big thumbs up for her tiptop wig, makeup, and hair design, from Richard’s scars to Strang’s mess of a bird’s nest wig and head-to-toe filth. Best among all the design elements is Patrick Hotchkiss’s extraordinary sound design, which envelopes the audience with cries of battle, the whinnies and gallops of horses, and the dank sounds of dripping water, and underscores scenes with a pulsating, dramatic musical soundtrack. The scene in which Richard is visited in his sleep by the ghosts of his victims is a particularly striking blend of performance, direction, and design.

I’ve attended a sizeable number of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, but this is I believe only the second of his histories that I’ve seen, and the first I’ve reviewed here. The fact that most of what transpires in Richard III happened, or at least could have happened, gives it an air of realism that sets it apart from the improbabilities that we suspend disbelief for in say Hamlet, Romeo And Juliet, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  I look forward to seeing more Shakespearean histories performed by A Noise Within. In the meantime, there’s Richard III to keep audiences enthralled and entertained in equal measure.

A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
November 18, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Craig Schwartz

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