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Some five centuries before Canadian shrink Robert Hare devised his famous psychometric assay of psychopathy, William Shakespeare had already delineated the syndrome with clinical precision in his portrayal of Richard III (1452-1485), England’s last Plantagenet king.
“Glib charm, grandiosity, shameless lying and scheming, utter callousness, a short fuse and even shorter attention span, irresponsibility, promiscuity” — item by item, Richard checks out all the way down Hare’s list. But, unlike Hare, Shakespeare is not interested in forensic diagnosis. Rather, he’s out to capture the hideously human fascination of this charismatic monster. Headliner Dan Donohue creates a mesmerizing Richard in this year’s Ashland production.
Right in his opening monologue, Richard spells out his motive for wrecking the “weak, piping time of peace” that now threatens to break out at the conclusion of the 30-year War of the Roses. Lame and humpbacked, with a palsied hand, he is “cheated of feature…deformed, unfinished…And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days/I am determined to prove a villain.”
Donohue brilliantly inhabits Richard’s deformities to physically project the steadily smoldering grievance that underlies all the mood shifts and glib jive of his mercurial character. There’s a grisly grace tabout the way he uses his dead limb now for a cudgel (when he’s fighting) and then for a gentlest caress (when he’s wooing). At his coronation he pirouettes triumphantly, brandishing the usurped scepter in his good right hand while clutching the orb in his palsied left claw as a counterweight. His every movement conveys a practiced economy, a the kind of hypnotically alien rightness you might sense watching reptiles or spiders.
This perverse athleticism underscores Richard’s moral and emotional gymnastics as he orders up the murders of his brother and nephews, seduces the widows of his victims and casually jettisons his most loyal allies. These stunts are simply game moves, as far as he’s concerned; he celebrates each such coup with sportsmanly glee. Donohue can conjure himself into the very embodiment of pietistic humility or towering rage or lovestruck devotion and then, the next moment, turn on a dime to gloat about his clever duplicity. His hypocrisy would do proud any modern CEO or politician.
It’s not about the stakes, for such a consummate player. Even after he’s won, he keeps compulsively gaming for its own sake, sinking ever deeper into paranoia. Tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, he’s baffled to be battling with himself — “but Richard loves Richard!” — yet soldiers on against this last, unbeatable adversary. Director James Bundy wisely has him die in the end like a stuck pig, encircled by a ring of anonymous spear-carriers rather than felled by a single champion.
More than any other play in the Shakespearean cannon, this is a one-man play. Nobody else onstage even remotely rivals Richard for complexity or nuance. Nevertheless, a top tier cast of OSF veterans ably and unobtrusively supported Donohue, most notably Anthony Heald as the queasy quisling Buckingham, Robin Nordli as Queen Elizabeth and Franchelle Dorn as cussin’ Queen Margaret.
Grade schooler Tess Hemmerling was so pert and sassy as the young Duke of York that Richard could almost be forgiven for offing such an intolerable wise-ass.
Veteran scenic designer Richard Hay decked out the outdoor Elizabethan Theater with an appropriately spiky and understated set. Do make it up to Ashland to take in this production before it gets rained out and shut down at the end of this month. Best Richard III I’ve ever seen.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.