July 7, 2010

The last time I saw Richard

I can’t remember the last time I went to see Shakespeare in Central Park. There for a while, I made a habit of it. I remember seeing a number of productions, but for whatever reason, I lost the initiative.

It’s a shame, really. I live in a city with a nationally respected, free Shakespeare program, and I can’t motivate myself to travel 3 miles to attend. Pathetic. I could walk that far for a less compelling purpose.

As it happens, one of my facebos (fuh-SEE-boze, noun, “friend or friendship that is at least partly facilitated by social networking sites such as Facebook,” inclusion in OED pending) re-ignited my interest in the program. It’s always more fun to do things with friends, isn’t it?

This year’s production of “The Tempest” featured an African-American man (Dathan Hooper) playing Ariel (an interesting choice), a large pool of water downstage with a handheld model used to represent the shipwreck (didn’t really work that well), and a fairly dour Prospero (company stalwart Monte Priddy). I would ordinarily expect Prospero to be more playful, but Priddy’s portrayal was sweetly engaging and realistic.

One week after seeing “The Tempest,” I returned to Central Park to see “Richard III.” Brian Hinds’ portrayal of the principal leaned hard on the humor buried in this grim tale. The actor found surprisingly funny moments with little more than carefully chosen pauses. This is a Richard we could cheer for. The rest of the royals were so bloodless to begin with; offing them was little more than editing out the dull spots.

But there were a few moments that failed to fire. Richard’s wooing of his former sister, Queen Margaret, didn’t quite ring true, and his breakdown in the final battle was out of the range of Hinds’ comic interpretation. The truth of the more serious bits seemed to confound him. Happily, these moments were but a smidgen of the whole.

The notorious dream sequence, a gathering of the ghostly victims of Richard’s deadly campaign, leading to the final battle, was presented in a video. Aside from the technical flaws (theater people aren’t necessarily filmmakers), the movie failed to generate the appropriately eerie, mounting dread of Richard’s impending fall. Luckily, his death is performed with the production’s single most inspired bit of blocking and was worth the wait.

I ran into an old friend that night, my freshman college roommate. We had gone to England together with a group to study Shakespeare in London and in Stratford-upon-Avon 25 years ago. That trip had been on my mind this week, but seeing Jim reminded me of a production of “Richard III” we saw in London. A distant, hazy memory, I don’t remember that production being nearly as funny as the one in Central Park. Jim reminded me that it had featured Antony Sher in the title role. Sher won an Olivier Award for the portrayal.

Meanwhile, this story of obtuse political ambition struck me as a curious counterpoint to a movie I have been fixated on over the last couple weeks. “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” based on a book by David Foster Wallace, purports to document one grad student’s efforts to research male attitudes toward sex in the wake of women’s liberation. Inspired by a romantic break-up, Sara (Julianna Nicholson) turns her bewilderment over her former lover’s behavior into her master’s thesis.

The subject matter (candid revelations of mundane and bizarre attitudes toward sexual desire) is practically designed to make male viewers uncomfortable. It may be true that these “interviews” represent real perspectives, but taken as a whole, they don’t offer much hope for anything close to normal or rational where sexual relationships are concerned.

While the “interviews” are presented in a variety of ways, they tend to be somewhat static. On the other hand, the film’s out-of-sequence narrative structure is surprisingly engaging; while the monologues tend to pile up, the underlying narrative reveals itself very slowly.

Director John Kaminski (who also plays Ryan) tends to draw bald, theatrical performances from his “subjects,” and we are never allowed to forget that these are actors reading a script, which may be something of a saving grace. As with “Richard III,” we are granted the vague possibility that the ugly aspects of what we are shown are merely inventions designed to entertain, not reflections of any particularly unpleasant truth.

For next time: The second season of HBO’s “Hung” might be worth a look.