Houston Shakespeare Festival's Richard III Rocks Miller Outdoor Theatre

Jack Young as Richard III in the Houston Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III.
Jack Young as Richard III in the Houston Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III. Photo by Brian Boeckman

We live in an age of antiheroes – or at least we did. Though Frank Underwood lives to scheme his way around the Oval Office another day, Walter White has gone to that big meth lab in the sky, Dexter’s fled to the Pacific Northwest, Jax Teller met up with a big rig and Tony Soprano cut to black.

As calculating, amoral, murdering protagonists have one by one left our screens, not to be replaced, the question is: Is it possible these characters have lost their allure? Have entertainment, news media, politics become so negative that a character like this can no longer truly be enjoyed? Based on the Houston Shakespeare Festival’s production of Richard III, playing in repertory with Twelfth Night, the answer is a resounding no.

From the heavy Black Sabbath guitar riff that opens it to the hard beat of Megadeth that ends it, Richard III is a heavy metal affair, a hard-hitting and relentless take on Shakespeare’s Richard, a man with a chip on his shoulder dead set on eliminating all the obstacles standing between him and the throne. The obstacles? Unfortunately for those around him, pretty much everyone – brothers, nephews, niece, wife, co-conspirators who suddenly seem to be developing a conscience and those no longer of use.

Beginning with Richard’s first appearance, trudging along after his brother’s rock-star-like procession, the red-carpet pageantry of Edward IV taking the throne, and his first soliloquy, bitterness and superiority bleeding through his words, it’s clear that Young will drive this train with great intensity and commitment. Though Richard is hobbled, his mind is sharp, too sharp, and Young conveys that clever, scheming mind – as well as Richard’s own self-satisfaction, which is contagious – through his impressive grip on timing and delivery. The skill Young and his fellow actors show successfully makes accessible this play written more than 400 years ago in a way that makes it feel modern, that keeps the audience in the palm of their hands at every turn.

Young sets such a high bar that you may worry for the other actors, but don’t; each turns in a performance that stands up beautifully against his own. Particularly noteworthy performances come from Tracie Thomason, Madison Hart, Carlton Warnberg, Laura Menzie and Meg Rodgers.

Lady Anne is arguably the most difficult character to make believable. She must go from angry, grieving widow, doubly wronged by Richard, to his future wife – quite the arc to be made in one scene – but Thomason succeeds, her early scene both believable and offering the first, and best, example of Richard’s master puppeteering skills.

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Carlton Warnberg, Jack Young and Meg Rodgers in the Houston Shakespeare Festival production of Richard III.
Photo by Brian Boeckman
“Show-stopping” is a phrase overused, but the only one that can describe Hart’s first appearance as Queen Margaret, casting the foreshadowing curse on Richard’s house; Warnberg’s monologue in captivity as Clarence, and later the rousing speech he gives his troops as Richmond; Menzie as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, disavowing her son; and Meg Rodgers’s emotional Queen Elizabeth, speaking with Richard after he’s taken everything from her.

Troy Beckman, Heidi Hinkel and Abraham Ntonya do Richard’s dirtiest work, brutally murdering those he marks for death, and together create a menacing, horror movie-like atmosphere anytime they appear onstage.

Director Lenny Banovez did an excellent job staging this play throughout, utilizing the space available while leaving enough room for characters like those played by Beckman, Hinkel and Ntonya to lurk and emerge from dark corners.

In set and costume design – from Jonathan Middents and Leah Smith, respectively – where Twelfth Night lacked cohesion, Richard III shines. Ropes crisscross the stage, creating a weblike backdrop, apt for the spider collecting its prey throughout the show, until he himself gets caught in it, that is. As characters die, bodies are lifted to the rafters until death surrounds the set and those remaining, a very effective storytelling and design choice. Lighting designer Clint Allen and sound designer Jesse Gustin do their part as well, maybe best exemplified by the backlit-white stage and echoing voices as Richard’s “coward conscience” catches up with him.

Young, who also served as fight director, deserves a nod here too, for choreographing a thrilling battle scene that was wonderfully chaotic and not just chaos, and a strong note to end on.

Before the show, Banovez and HSF Executive Director Robert Shimko addressed a modest crowd for a pre-show talk. In it, they said to think of Richard III as being like the last episode of Game of Thrones, a finale of sorts to the works that came before it. It is, but it's worth nothing that Richard III set the standard for shows like Game of Thrones and all the antiheroes that have followed in the past four centuries, and the fact that it can still captivate is pretty darn impressive.

Richard III continues on August 2, 4 and 6 at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park. For information, call 281-373-3386 or visit Free.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.