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Open: 04/21/13- Close: 05/04/13 Richard Iii : Born With Teeth
Reviewed for TheaterOnline.com By: Ashley Griffin

Steven Boling ©2019  The night before the battle, Richard (James Wallert) is haunted in his sleep by the spirits of those he's killed (Rhett Henckel, Peter Jay Fernandez, James Joseph O'Neil and Carra Patterson).

The Epic Theatre Ensemble’s production of “Born With Teeth” is a sometimes successful, more often not, production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard the 3rd.”

The Epic Theatre Ensemble has a wonderful mission of not only producing commercial theater, but bringing theater to schools, and creating a social dialogue through their work. But taking their “Born With Teeth” at pure face value as a commercial production, it leaves something wanting.

 Produced by Epic Theater Ensemble at the wonderful Signature Center (the Signature is being rented out for this production, and is not a producer on the show,) I’m actually entirely confused as to why the play has been given a new title. Though scenes have been switched around (as often happens in Shakespeare productions,) this is very clearly a production of Shakespeare’s “Richard the 3rd.” “Richard the 3rd” is in fact my favorite of Shakespeare’s histories – though without a decent amount of knowledge of British history, it’s easy to get confused by the political details of the play. Epic Theater Ensemble seems to be attempting to rectify that – but truthfully their adjustments make the back story even more confusing. Especially at the beginning of the play they change the order of scenes, attempting to use them to express moments that happened before the story of the play began – the usurpation of the throne, the murder of Lady Anne’s husband and father-in-law, etc. But these scenes only create confusion – especially since actors are playing multiple characters with no costume changes. I know the plot extremely well – and I wasn’t able to follow what was going on.

“Richard the 3rd” takes place just after the War of the Roses – a British civil war of sorts in which the ruling Lancasters were over thrown by their kinsmen the Yorks. At the start of the play – the Yorks are in power, but although happy and celebrating, there is a palpable tension in the air. The King is dying, and the rule of the Yorks is on shaky ground to begin with. The next in line to the throne is a twelve-year-old prince – too young to rule, leaving lots of room open for other members of the York family to try to win their way to the top. Richard is the most crafty of these and sets in motion a brilliant chess game whereby he murders everyone ahead of him in line for the throne, and even woos, and marries Lady Anne while she is standing over the grave of her husband and father-in-law – both of whom had been publically murdered by Richard. (Ian Mckellen’s film version sets this scene in a morgue – with the dead body of Anne’s husband lying in plain view. Richard is a talented little bugger.)

 

It seems that director Ron Russell was attempting to do with “Richard the 3rd” what Baz Luhrmann did with “Romeo and Juliet” – create a contemporary re telling that used contemporary music, clothing, etc. to illuminate the story. But this “Richard” never comes together. Music cues are short, and function more as scene change transitions then as commentary on the plot. The contemporary setting and costumes do actually work to make the show relevant to the current political climate, but basic, essential elements of the story, seemingly done in an attempt to be “accessible” and current do a great disservice to the effectiveness of the piece.

The first is Richard himself – one of the greatest villains of all time – who describes himself as:

Steven Boling ©2019  The night before the battle, Richard (James Wallert) is haunted in his sleep by the spirits of those he's killed (Rhett Henckel, Peter Jay Fernandez, James Joseph O'Neil and Carra Patterson).

“I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,

Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,

Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time

Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them”

Richard is defined by the fact that he is a hunchback, and physically deformed – a metaphor for his own twisted nature, and part of what speaks to his enormous talent for deceit – he does everything he does, all the manipulation, flattery, lying while LOOKING like a monster, and still he gets away with it!

In this production, Richard has no use of his left arm (which he holds regally on his chest) but in all other respects appears completely normal. Even attractive. There is a moment in the second act when a servant, preparing Richard for bed, removes a brace that he wears on his back – and for an instant we get a hint that physically all is not as it seems with Richard. But it is very subtle, and comes almost at the end of the play, which undermines its effectiveness – if it is in fact an effective choice to begin with.

The more glaring deficit is two fold. The first is that all the actors seem to have been directed to play up the show for laughs. Seriously, every other line started to come across as a somewhat forced “gag.” Granted, there is certainly humor in all of Shakespeare’s plays – even the darkest ones. But “Richard the 3rd” is anything but a comedy. The result is that, certainly in the first act, all the characters come across as dim-witted sitcom characters – completely undermining the point of the show. The genius of “Richard the 3rd” is that Richard turns to the audience, tells them what he’s going to do, then, against all odds – the fact that he’s dealing with highly intelligent, not to mention highly suspicious royals, the fact that he’s deformed, the fact that he’s known to be a villain – DOES IT ANYWAY – and does it brilliantly! So much so, that WE’RE even buying his act. Then he turns back to us and says “Aren’t I brilliant! Look how good I am!” In this production it was more Richard turns to the audience and says “Man! Can you believe how dumb these people are?! This is so easy anyone could do it!”

The cast boasts some amazing Broadway credits – and I was surprised I wasn’t more impressed with the performances. Perhaps it was the direction they were given. A couple of the company’s artistic directors cast themselves in principle roles, and although fine actors, felt miscast.

The show started to hit its stride in the second act when it finally started to allow the show to be what it is – a dark political tragedy.  It was in these moments that the intention behind this production became the most clear. One thing that greatly commends all the actors is how clearly and effectively they speak the lines. When really playing the intentions of the scene, and speaking the words clearly Shakespeare’s brilliance is allowed to speak for itself, and shine through the piece. The most effective for me were the second act scenes between Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret – and shortly after between Queen Elizabeth and Richard.

All the design elements were fine and effective. The costumes implied that the Yorks were akin to a modern Kennedy-esque family, and I personally loved the analogy to the current not quite so hidden corruption in Washington. But truthfully, I would not recommend this show to someone who is completely unfamiliar with “Richard the 3rd” (for them, check out one of my favorite movies – “Looking For Richard” by, and starring Al Pacino.) But if you’re looking for an interesting take on a classic play, “Born With Teeth” has some sometimes effective, sometimes not, food for thought. 

Venue:
The Pershing Square Signature Center : 480 West 42nd Street