Modern Shakespeare productions suffer a predictable temptation. Solid Shakespeare productions can be grounded in three settings: neo-Elizabethan (with actors in tights and codpieces running through Tudor decor); historical (the setting referred to in the script, such as classical arches where actors in togas roam in Julius Caesar); contemporary (where actors in street clothes use two plain benches in a minimalist set). But directors are often tempted to concoct a snazzy setting from another period having nothing to do with the script. The result is a gimmick that tears against the action of the drama and the very words of the Bard. I have sat through a Comedy of Errors set in 1930s Fascist Italy (with platoons of nuns marching in Art Deco squares), a Tempest placed during spring break in 1950s Fort Lauderdale (Miranda was an Annette Funicello knockoff), and a mysterious Merry Wives of Windsor set in a Wild West show in 1890s Montana (the dog act was the best part).
Alas, in the otherwise excellent Chesapeake Shakespeare Company production of Richard III, director Ian Gallanar has let his vandalizing inner child mangle the script. He has set the production in World War I. Singers regale us with "Keep the Home Fires Burning" and soldiers run around the stage with rifles and gas masks. Photographers snap the picture of royal family members. But the script keeps reminding us that this is all about the War of the Roses, that we are in medieval Catholic England, and that the harried Richard wants a horse, not a taxi to the Marne, as his final military campaign collapses. The incongruity of the juxtaposition of script and setting reaches a climax at the production's conclusion. Just after Henry Tudor delivers his eloquent speech celebrating the reconciliation of the warring houses of York and Lancaster in his own now-royal person, the entire cast appears on stage to serenade us with "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag."
Despite the tiresome gimmickry, Gallanar's direction is often a tour de force. He brings out the stakes in the play's bravura scenes, such as the seduction of Lady Anne, the curses by Queen Elizabeth, and the tragicomic killing of Clarence, Richard III's brother. His staging of the nightmare/ghost scene, where Richard confronts the spirits of all those he has murdered on his trip to the throne, is one of the finest one will see in any theater. The sound design and audial design brilliantly highlight the dramatic action. Chesapeake's magnificent multi-level playing space permits the perambulating acting corps to draw the audience into the play's action.
Vince Eisenson gives a bravura performance as Richard III. This part can easily bring out the ham in an actor as Richard rejoices in his villainy and his successive conquests of his victims. Actors often chew the scenery and wink at the audience as Richard bags one royal personage after another. Eisenson is more restrained and businesslike in his campaign. He brings out the real charm of Richard as he seduces lady Anne, the daughter of one of his victims, and the "good uncle" benevolent concern as he creates a sanctuary for the nephews he will murder. We always knew he was a villain. Now we know why he was such a convincing salesman.
The fine supporting cast gives excellent support to Eisenson and acts as convincing foils. They maintain an admirably clear diction throughout the performance and very much cohere as a single ensemble caught mob-like in the dark ascension of Richard. Especially fine are the performances by two children actors (Mia Boydston, Gareth Swing) as the doomed children of Edward IV.