“Made I him king for this!” exclaims the anguished Duke of Buckingham (played by John Hickok) at one point in the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s current production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Buckingham seems like a pretty reasonable person, overall, but he’s made a crucial error in helping the Duke of Gloucester (played by Derek Wilson) — physically crippled but charismatic — become King Richard III. Richard III always seemed a little eccentric, but now, beset by monumental paranoia, he is killing everyone who poses the slightest threat to him.
I saw the play last weekend, when Donald Trump’s campaign was unraveling due to the “Access Hollywood” tape. And I had just read a New York Times article, “Shakespeare Explains the 2016 Election,” that was all about “Richard III.” So I couldn’t help but think of powerful Republicans, shaking their heads, and muttering to themselves, “Made I him the nominee for this!”
It was smart of the Shakespeare Theatre, of course, to schedule such a politically insightful play for Election Season crunch time, though no one could have predicted just how timely it would be. It’s a first-rate production, and continues quite a winning streak for the theater, whose last two plays — “Red Velvet” and “Exit the King” — have been equally profound and powerful.
The characters wear modern clothes, and shoot guns, but that’s almost irrelevant since the fireworks come not from the scenes of physical violence, but from the confrontations between Richard III and his fellow royals. Two scenes in particular were impressively tense. One featured Richard III face-to-face with Queen Elizabeth (Gretchen Hall), the widow of his brother, King Edward IV; she seems to acquiesce to his demands, but is really just manipulating him. In the other, his mother, the Duchess of York (Ellen Fiske), tells him off in no uncertain terms (“Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end”).
But if there’s is a central relationship in this play, it’s between Richard III and Buckingham, the monster and the guy who wasn’t recognize who he was putting into power until it was too late. Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most colorful roles — it seems like every truly great actor has played it, at least once — and Wilson is up to the challenge, oozing ambition until everything falls apart, and only violence and madness is left.
“Richard III” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Nov. 6; visit shakespearenj.org.
Also worth seeing while you’re at Drew: In honor of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, the university is currently displaying one of the few surviving copies of the First Folio — the earliest published collection of Shakespeare’s plays, from 1623 — in Mead Hall, which is only a short walk from the Shakespeare Theatre. It will be open through Oct. 30, Tuesdays to Fridays from 4 to 8 p.m. and weekends from noon to 8 p.m. Visit drew.edu/firstfolio.
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