Review: “The War of the Roses” (from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy + “Richard III) at California Shakespeare Theater (****)

by Charles Kruger

Aldo Billingslea (Buckingham) and Danny Scheie (King Richard III). Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Richard The Third is one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters for good reason. As purely evil as Iago, Richard’s charming personality and delight in villainy make him fascinate audiences. Few actors could resist the chance to embody him. Certainly not Danny Scheie, a Bay area Shakespearean stalwart. The beloved UC Santa Cruz professor is well-known for playing Shakespearean clowns. Since local theatre fans heard that the clown would wear the crown this summer in Orinda, the buzz has been busy indeed.

California Shakespeare Theater has pulled out all the stops for the event. Not only are they staging Richard III, but they have combined it with a skillful adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy in which Shakespeare details his version of the back story, to create an epic event.  The results are uneven, but many flashes of brilliance are undeniable.

The difficulty lies in the complexity. “Richard III” stands on its own as entertainment, even if the historic details are a bit vague. By adding content from “Henry VI,” much is made clear, but, alas, much is muddied as well. For example, the French wars that precede the English wars are confusing. The wandering in and out of a babbling Joan of Arc (played with dramatic flair by Sarita Ocón)  obscures as much as it clarifies. (Thoughtful program notes are helpful.)

Things start to make more sense when Henry The Sixth himself becomes the center of attention. Joseph Patrick O’Malley creates a memorable, gentle characterization of the hapless, well meaning King who is clearly not up to the demands of the job. O’Malley’s performance is one of the “flashes of brilliance” mentioned above.

The plot moves along, sometimes clear, and sometimes muddy. We are carried as on a strong current to the emergence of Richard. It is not entirely clear how he gets there, but he is riding an historic wave to the throne and that sense of excitement goes a long way to keeping us engaged.

Of course, the big event is Richard himself, and Danny Scheie makes of the man a grand grotesque. Mincing and lisping, clowing and cavorting, Scheie and director Eric Ting have made the interesting choice to play down Richard’s famous physical deformity. There is no obvious hunchback or withered arm. The deformity we see portrayed is moral, ethical, and spiritual. It is easy to imagine that Scheie’s Richard is either a genuine psychopath or possessed by a devil. Nothing seems to justify the depth of his depravity as he hacks his way to the throne. But he is undeniably attractive, too, in his unrepentant delight at his own success. We believe him when he seduces Lady Ann, even as she grieves the husband whom he murdered. And we see how sycophants, desperate to see their side win the prize, and thrilled to see Richard succeed, line up to do him service. Speaking of these types, please note another “flash of brilliance” from the always excellent Aldo Billingslea as that terrifying toady, the Duke of Buckingham. His smile would make a crocodile flee for cover. If this description of Richard’s rise sounds all-too-familiar in the Age of Trump—well, that is no accident. The parallels are easy to spot.

Most of the actors in the relatively small company play multiple parts, which sometimes adds to the confusion. But there are standout performances from Catherine Leudtke as Queen Elizabeth, Stacy Ross as King Edward IV, and Jomar Tagatac in several roles.

Overall, “The War of The Roses” is perhaps too big and confusing to achieve the kind of clarity which would qualify for greatness. On the other hand, many of the performances achieve heightened moments of drama that will stick to the memory.

For serious Shakespeare lovers with a sophisticated knowledge of the plays, this is a must see. More casual theatre goers might find it rough going, but truly rewarding in parts.

“The War of the Roses” (from Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy + Richard III) plays at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda through September 15, 2018. For further information, click here.

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

“The War of the Roses” adapted from Shakespeare’s Henry Vi trilogy + Richard III by Eric Ting and Philippa Kelly., produced by California Shakespeare Theater. Director: Eric Ting. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Costume Designer: Anna R. Oliver. Lighting Designer: Jiyoun Chang. Sounds & Media Designer: Brendan Aanes. Composer & Music Director: Byron Au Young. Fight Director: Dave Maier. Choreographer: Erika Chong Shuch. 

Acting Company

Aldo Billingslea, Aysan Celik, Lance Gardner, Catherine Luedtke, Sarita Ocón, Joseph Patrick O’Malley, Josh Pollock, Stacy Ross, Marie Sadd, Danny Scheie, Jomar Tagatac, Abdulrahim Harara, Justin Howard, Iris Stone.


Josh Pollock

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