Review: An all-female 'Richard III' makes for an evening of discontent

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Review: An all-female 'Richard III' makes for an evening of discontent
From left, Rami Margron, Connie Castanzo and Delaney Feener in “Richard III,” in Central Park in New York on Saturday, June 24, 2023. The New York Classical Theater adaptation, playing in New York’s city parks, feints toward novelty but offers little in the way of originality. (Amir Hamja/The New York Times)

by Rhoda Feng

NEW YORK, NY.- The idea of an “all-female, gender-fluid, disability forward” staging of “Richard III” — as New York Classical Theater describes its new production of Shakespeare’s tragedy about the monstrously degenerate Plantagenet king — tantalizes. Will the protagonist, who loves to “descant on mine own deformity,” make us see anew the premium that society places on women’s appearances? Will the Duke of Gloucester be reenvisioned as a bloody-minded assassin like the bloody-minded Villanelle of “Killing Eve”? Will it force us to reckon with discrimination against the disabled in the royal court? As realized in this risk-shy adaptation directed by Stephen Burdman, the answer is none of the above.

This “Richard III,” which plays in New York parks through July 9, feints toward novelty while offering little in the way of originality — the actors all inhabit the genders of their characters as originally conceived. The title role is played by Delaney Feener, a strong actor with a “limb difference,” as the press material takes care to note. But with her shortened right arm hidden beneath a cloak, Feener’s Richard does not immediately register as a “boar,” “bottled spider,” “foul-bunched toad” or any of the bestial lumps to which he is repeatedly compared by other characters. That can be a valid choice if explored thoughtfully, but even after Richard reveals that shortened arm to us and says he is “determined to prove a villain,” we gain little insight into his psychology; it’s unclear if this line is a boasting assertion of will or a victim’s lament.

While certain scenes are understandably curtailed or excised — a requirement in compressed versions even longer than this one’s two hours — the removal of Queen Margaret from a production starring women and gender-nonconforming actors is less forgivable. Although often seen as a peripheral character, she serves as a linchpin in the Wars of the Roses and appears in all of Shakespeare’s first series of history plays, her curses having the force of prophecy. Along with Queen Elizabeth (a regal Kristen Calgaro) and the Duchess of York (Pamela Sabaugh), Margaret traditionally forms a trinity of grieving women that usefully recalls the three Fates or Furies.

This ambulatory adaptation, which requires audience members to pick up their own blankets or collapsible chairs and walk to different sections of the parks, also does not make for the most accessible production. A change of scenery sometimes proves dramatically fortuitous, as when a tree provides handy cover for one of many beheadings, but more often disrupts the momentum of proceedings. When Richard is finally unhorsed from power and swallowed into the night, we should feel relieved that his reign of terror has ended. But we don’t: The problem with this “Richard III” is that its villain is not a “boar” but a bore.

‘Richard III’Through July 9 at various New York City parks; Running time: 2 hours.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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