Richard III / The Rivals

In its rotating repertory of 'Richard III' and 'The Rivals,' the Austin Shakespeare Festival shifts between polar extremes: violent tragedy and frothy romance

Arts Review

Richard III/The Rivals

Austin Playhouse, through Mar 19

Running times: Richard III, 2 hrs, 35 min; The Rivals, 2 hrs, 30 min

In this year's rotating repertory, the Austin Shakespeare Festival shifts from one polar extreme to the other – violent tragedy to frothy romance, wintry midnight to summer's noon – and yet through these opposites runs a common thread: people who pretend to be something other than what they are to achieve their deepest desire.

In the case of Richard III, Shakespeare's famously ambitious, vicious crookback plays the unfairly maligned innocent to his blood relations even as he betrays them, ruthlessly dispatching brothers, cousins, and nephews to early graves on his bloody path to England's throne. Directors Guy Roberts and Robert Matney play up this notion from the moment their production opens: Roberts' Richard, his shaven head gleaming, his forearms braced against long, canelike crutches, speaks his familiar first lines – "Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York" – to the court while cavorting about the stage, all smiles, as if he's performing for his family, a misshapen jester seeking to please. It's only some 14 lines in that the lighting shifts to lurid crimson, and we shift to Richard's private thoughts, to hear him proclaim his bitterness and self-loathing and his murderous scheme to claim the crown. As he so often does, Roberts throws himself into the character's physicality. He makes the crutches extensions of his arms, wheeling, whipping, and lurching about like some great ape, a restless silverback aggressively advancing on his rivals. This certainly adds an air of creepiness to his unnatural figure, enhancing the sense of menace in him and making his put-on buffoonery appear the act of a sinister clown. Unfortunately, when Richard is supposed to be convincing someone of his sincerity, as when he's wooing Lady Anne over the corpse of her husband, Roberts can't quite let go of the melodrama, can't abandon the exaggeration of his clownish role-play. He's so blatantly insincere – think Eddie Haskell complimenting Mrs. Cleaver – that it's hard to accept him fooling a child, much less the widow of a man he murdered or his royal peers, most of them as keen to political machinations as he is. The stakes are raised when Matthew Radford's shrewdly politic Buckingham colludes with Richard or when Babs George's Queen Elizabeth stands up to him with sharp sarcasm, but without a sense of Richard swaying his victims with seeming guilelessness, of being so persuasive that he turns them against their better judgment, he looks to be working his will merely through brute force. Here he comes off less a villain than a bully, and when he meets his inevitable end, it's less like a schemer having schemed himself out of England's crown than the fall of a common street thug.

In Richard Brinsley Sheridan's less weighty The Rivals, a well-off captain plays the poor ensign to land the hand of a wealthy lass who's vowed not to wed a man who's in it for the money – hers or his. The masquerade wins him his miss but runs him afoul of his father, her guardian aunt, and a country bumpkin buddy wishing to woo the same lady, and, through a screwy coincidence, even makes him his own rival for the lady's hand. As he works to untangle this dual-identity knot, Jack Absolute must negotiate a gauntlet of sternly disapproving parental types, woefully forlorn lovers, and conniving servants, all brought to appealingly boisterous life by the cast of this production directed by Guy Roberts and Ian Manners. Andrea Osborn makes Jack's lady love, Lydia Languish, as changeable as an English summer day: one minute sweet sunshine, the next a storm to send all scurrying for cover. Playing Jack's obstinate pater, Dirk Van Allen is so fixed of mind and firm of foot, he's a veritable wall on stockinged legs. As Jack's pal Faulkland, Roberts is dressed all in black, emblematic of the character's ability to find a dark cloud around every silver lining; when he voices his anxieties about the true feelings of his true love (an unassailably modest Sarah Johnson), Roberts goes operatic, wailing arias of misery. In contrast is the rube Acres, played by Matney with a basset-hound puss that rarely changes expression but is all the funnier for it, especially when it's coated in white powder and framed in foppish blond curls. Portraying Mrs. Malaprop, whose every utterance mangles the language beyond recognition, a formidable Bernadette Nason pops her eyes in umbrage and delivers severe pronouncements with the authority – and the same salutary effect – of a meat cleaver on a pullet's neck. The impression is of a world driven daft by the heady passions of romance being confined within the constricting conventions of 18th-century English manners, with Matthew Radford's Jack, played with a cleverness at once devilish and serene, the only sane human in a world of madmen. The unabashed broadness may not suit all tastes, but the company appears to truly relish Sheridan's comedy – and by that I mean his human comedy, the folly in which these figures are so deeply immersed – so that the laughs arise from the characters, not actorly shtick. The production feels true to the play's spirit, just in high spirits.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Richard III, The Rivals, Austin Shakespeare Festival, William Shakespeare, Guy Roberts, Ian Manners, Matthew Radford, Babs George, Rob Matney, Andrea Osborn, Sarah Johnson, Bernadette Nason, Dirk Van Allen

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