Review: ‘Richard III’ at African American Shakespeare Company (*****)

by Charles Kruger

L. Peter Callender is at the top of his very considerable game as a charismatic monster in the title role of “Richard III” at African American Shakespeare Company. Photo Credit: Lance Huntley
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The plum role of Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most flamboyant, charismatic, and shocking characters, offers a great opporunity to an actor. From the opening moments of this production, L. Peter Callender grabs hold of Richard like a hunter tackling his prey with a knife and joyfully wrestles him to the ground. Richard’s delight in his villainy, and Callender’s evident delight in the part are a joy to behold. Callender knows what he’s got a hold of, and plays it to the hilt. A performance like this comes along once in a blue moon.

Director Kirsten Brandt appreciates her star and gives him all the rope he needs to hang himself high, but she is not satisfied to leave it at that. She has pushed every actor in the company to compete with the star for intensity, creating a production that is unrelentingly breathless in its excitement. The large cast takes on multiple roles with great expertise, and each deserves to be singled out in this review.

It is not possible, alas, to touch on every performance, but I must mention Leontyne Mbele-Mbong’s carefully calibrated characterization of the Duchess (usually the Duke) of Buckingham, following the whirlwind that is Richard, foolishly convinced that she will be able to keep her balance in the storm. As Richard’s mad and destructive charisma sweeps everybody up like a tornado, she (and multiple other sycophants) will be familiar types to anybody that has been paying attention to the latest newspaper headlines.

As a ghostly Queen Margaret, cursing Richard and all his followers, Beli Sullivan sends chills down the spine, and then right back up to do it again.

And I must mention fourth grader Cameron Payne, in the role of a doomed young potential challenger to Richard. This youngster’s unusual talent is already evident. His swordplay is extraordinary, each imagined thrust and parry rivets our attention. Kudos to fight choreographer Jarrett Holley, who took pains with this dramatic moment that most might have tossed off.

Performing on a narrow strip of stage, with minimal costumes and no set pieces whatsoever (except for some very effective projections which reference setting rather than trying to fully delineate a place), this is trimmed down Shakespeare that captures a truly Elizabethan aesthetic.

Seasoned lovers of Shakespeare will be reminded of why he is still so great; newcomers  couldn’t receive a better introduction.

Not to be missed.

“Richard III” plays at The Taube Atrium Theatre through July 29. For further information, click here.

Rating: ***** (for an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

“Richard III” by William Shakespeare, produced by the African American Shakespeare Company. Director: Kirsten Brandt. Set Designer: Kevin August Landesman. Media Designer: Kirsten Brandt. Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick. Sound Designer: Everett Elton Bradman. Costume Designer: Jackquelin Pedota. Prop Designer: Ting Na Wang. Fight Choreographer: Jarrett Holley. 

Cast: Richard: L. Peter Callender. Clarence: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong. Brakenbury: Beli Sullivan. Queen Elizabeth: Regina Morones. Rivers: Terrance Smith. Grey: Devin A.Cunningham. Buckingham: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong. Stanley: Jarrett Holley. Queen Margaret: Beli Sullivan. Catesby: Jourdán Olivier-Verdé. Murderer 1: Brittany Sims. Murderer 2: Devin A. Cunningham. King Edward IV: Jourdán Olivier-Verdé. Young York: Cameron Payne. Cardinal: Terrance Smith. Duchess of York: Brittany Sims. Prince Edward: Brandi Huzzle. Messenger: Beli Sullivan. Ely: Brittany Sims. Lord Mayor: Devin A. Cunningham. Tyrrel: Devin A. Cunningham. Princess Elizabeth: Brandi Huzzle. Young Stanley: Cameron Payne. Richmond: Terrance Smith. Oxford: Devin A. Cunningham. Blunt: Radhika Rao. Norfolk: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong.

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