Theatre review: Richard III – this production owes bulk of its success to Bob Frazer

While a satisfying end to Bard on the Beach’s three-year-long history cycle, Richard III owes the bulk of its success to the performance of Bob Frazer in the title role.

Frazer so fully immerses himself into the role of “that bottled spider, that foul bunch-back’d toad” with such a powerful performance that everything else around him doesn’t seem to matter.  Working his crutches as if they were extensions to his arms, Frazer moves with the frightening quickness of a horror movie arachnid on the hunt.  His sharp features, accentuated by his shaved head, are the perfect canvas for his grotesque grimaces that signal his displeasure with most everything and everyone around him.  Calculated, controlled and thoroughly enjoyable, there is little doubt his will be the performance to beat at next year’s Jessie awards.

While Frazer is definitely the star of this production, he also receives help from Scott Bellis in the role of the Duke of Buckingham.  On his own Bellis breathes a wonderfully contemptible life into his Buckingham, but when both he and Frazer are on the stage together, that all too elusive theatre magic actually happens; you can almost taste the wicked energy that Bellis and Frazer feed each other.

Bob Frazer stars in Bard on the Beach's Richard III
Bob Frazer stars in the 2011 production of Bard on the Beach’s Richard III.  Photo by David Blue.

Among the supporting cast Joel Wirkkunen, responsible for no less than four roles here, is a standout as the dying King Edward IV, providing a wonderfully schizophrenic portrayal.  Josue Laboucane, giving up the throne he held in Henry VI, does a nice job with his Catesby, one of Richard’s henchmen, but it is the nod to his dense Henry as one of Clarence’s murderers that, even though fleeting, hit the mark for me.  The women here are mostly forgotten, and where Henry VI achieved a nice balance in the male and female performances, there were disappointingly few memorable moments from the women.

Director Kathryn Shaw keeps things moving at a dizzying pace with the supporting cast making some incredibly fast costume (and character) changes.  Unfortunately, with those changes coming so fast and furious and with much doubling, tripling and quadrupling up on roles, it was at times difficult to keep up with it all.  As one actor runs off, only to re-appear moments later as someone else, there is little time for us to acclimatize to the fact they are indeed different characters.

Shaw adds to the confusion in a decision to use a pistol in a couple of scenes.  I couldn’t help but wonder why, if such weaponry was available in this world of Richard III, why anyone would bother using a sword.  At one point I half expected Richard to forgo the sword, or in his case his crutches, reach into his pocket and kill his attackers with a gun, a la Indiana Jones.

Where I griped about Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses having been diminished by some very odd costume choices, designer Sheila White manages to redeem herself somewhat with a more pleasing palette, but there still remains an odd mash-up of history that does little to serve the story.

While it isn’t the perfect ending that I had hoped for after six shows and three years, I still remain satisfied in the conclusion of this bloody Shakespearean soap opera.  But that satisfaction comes primarily from one man’s performance.

4 Out of 5 Stars Richard III

By William Shakespeare.  Directed by Kathryn Shaw.  A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production.  On stage at the Bard on the Beach Studio Stage through September 24, 2011.  Visit http://www.bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.

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