Mission statements are something like campaign promises. They sound good, but their relationship to reality is rather iffy.
Not so for Boston's latest theater company, the Actors' Shakespeare Project. Artistic director Benjamin Evett accomplishes just about everything he set out to do with the company's fine production of "Richard III" -- provide productions of Shakespeare in intimate settings that take the audience directly into the story with "a clear, vigorous approach to the verse and vivid characterizations," featuring the best actors in the area.
The company gathers actors and Shakespearean approaches from several local troupes into the historic Old South Meeting
House -- American Repertory Theatre refugees including Evett, Paula Plum, Ken Cheeseman, and Marya Lowry; Jennie Israel and Bobbie Steinbach, who have appeared with Commonwealth Shakespeare Company; Sarah Newhouse, a notable Beatrice at the Publick Theatre; and Allyn Burrows and Paula Langton from the state's best Bardians, Shakespeare & Company. First and foremost, at least this time around, there is John Kuntz, the ubiquitous actor/playwright. But as familiar as local audiences might be with Kuntz, his portrayal of Richard III, who schemes his way to the throne of England, is something else again. He has played noncomedic roles before, but the sorrow and the pity that he brings to the role, along with the psychosis and the evil, make for a dazzling performance.
With one hand curled in a paralyzed claw, Kuntz's "winter of our discontent" takes on a Freudian tone. The "civilized" court has locked him out of its fun and games, so he's going to find a back door into the ball. He'll schmooze those he needs to schmooze, seduce those he needs to seduce, and kill those he needs to kill, all in pursuit of power, though what he intends to do with that power even he doesn't know.
Kuntz is a poet as he persuadesLady Anne to marry him, even though he has just killed her husband. He's a tiger as he wraps his malformed feet around Buckingham -- here played by Lowry -- and pulls her to her knees. And he's a lost, friendless soul at the beginning and the end of the play. It was a gutsy move on Evett's part to cast Kuntz in the role and it pays dividends.
It's all the more powerful a performance considering the company he's keeping here. Burrows is the best Shakespearean actor on board, making Richard's brother, Clarence, the soul of naive goodness. He and his comrades at the Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company have made clarity their trademark, but an ease with Shakespearean diction is apparent throughout the cast, starting with the opening processional.
Kuntz stands by the onstage platform, the only real piece of scenery, in a gray suit (the company performs in modern dress), contemplating his misery and his empty champagne glass. The rest of the cast walks around the pews in which the audience is seated as if they're at a cocktail party. Plum as a tipsy Queen Margaret, the widow of the late Henry VI, shakes the rafters with a sigh here and a rage-filled confrontation there. Lowry's Buckingham puts just the right spin on her spin doctor who doesn't realize what she has done until it's too late.
In most Boston Shakespeare productions there are two or three riveting performances, some that are so-so, and others that border on the terrible. None of that here. There are a couple of weaker performances, but the acting is first-rate up and down the cast, as is the music composed and performed on several instruments by Bill Barclay.
Evett makes smart use of the meeting house from the raised platform that pushes most of the action toward the audience, which is cast as the citizenry. (Future productions will be in different venues.) Actors commiserate with the audience as if they're lawyers and we're jurors.
I don't know, though, that the play's relation to contemporary events means that much. Shakespeare's Richard has always struck me as uniquely Nixonian -- an overreacher who was doomed to fall because of his paranoia about his standing.
When Richmond, Richard's conqueror, says at the end of the play, "We will unite the White Rose and the Red," referring to the War of the Roses, does it resonate with America's division between the blue states and the red? It seems a bit of a stretch, particularly when this production seems so sharp about more psychological matters.
There are some minor quibbles. Evett's father, David, who plays Grey and the Bishop of Ely, doesn't seem in the same league as the rest of the actors. The reverberation in the hall provides a certain richness but can also swallow some of the more excitable acting. And the staging itself gets a bit boring by the second act. Except for the speech by Richmond (nicely played by Evett the younger), there isn't much to look at in the second act that hasn't been seen in the first. (And you'll need to either bring a mat or get one there to make three hours on a wooden bench less of a strain.)
It's worth it, though. In this, its first production, the Actors' Shakespeare Project goes to the head of the Shakespearean class in Boston. To quote Richmond again: "Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction."
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Benjamin Evett. Set, Troy Siebels. Lights, Michael Harris. Music, Bill Barclay. Produced by the Actors Shakespeare Project. At: Old South Meeting House, through Nov. 7. 866-811-4111.