November 14, 2007

Support for the Strike and for "Richard III"

Like many theater lovers, I have mixed feelings about the stagehands' strike that is now in its fifth day. On the one hand, I totally support the stagehands who deserve their share of the record-breaking ticket sales that The League of American Theatres and Producers keeps bragging about and I'm delighted that most of the public seems to feel that way too. "I definitely understand that people work hard and need an increase because of the cost of living," one mother told the New York Times on Saturday morning, the first day of the strike, even as she comforted her young daughter who was disappointed about not seeing Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!. My husband K, a pit musician and a member of the musicians' union Local 802, also spent Saturday on the streets of the theater district showing his support for the stagehands. Local 802, to the dismay of K and many of our musician friends, stayed out only four days when its contract talks broke down during the holiday season of 2003. But the stagehands, apparently seeing how little the musicians got for playing nice, have built up a $4 million war chest and say they are prepared for a long siege. Right on, as we used to say back in the '70s.

On the other hand, I hate to see a dark theater. And street after street of them is depressing enough to make me want to down something strong like a double shot of Dewar’s, and I don't even like Scotch. The brightest spot in all of this is that off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway shows are still open. There's nothing like a Broadway show but there is some terrific stuff to be seen in the smaller venues too. Last weekend my friend Ellie and I went to see the Classic Stage Company's production of Richard III. It opens the company's 40th season and as we waited for the show to start, Ellie, a former actress, fondly remembered auditioning for CSC when she first got to New York. Ellie now teaches literature and writing to college kids but the folks at CSC are still her kind of people: actors and directors who love the classic canon and who love making it come alive for contemporary audiences. My relationship to the canon, particularly to Shakespeare, is somewhat more ambivalent than Ellie's. I'm usually eager to see what people do with one of the Bard's plays but I'm also often disappointed after I've seen what they've done. But I wasn't disappointed this time. In fact, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had in the theater in months. And as regular readers know, I go to the theater a lot.

The evening didn't get off to a great start. The curtain was held for nearly half an hour while the crew worked on an electrical problem. And while they labored, the audience had to stand outside in the theater's small lobby down on East 13th Street. But then, to make the waiting easier, staff members passed around complimentary glasses of red and white wine and cups of espresso and latte. You don't get that kind of treatment on Broadway. What could have been a surly crowd turned into a festive group. Nearly everyone was in a good mood when the doors finally opened.
As it turns out, the show would have been worth the wait even without the libations.

Richard III may be the theater's greatest villain. He's totally evil but, in the right hands, he's also totally entertaining. Michael Cumpsty, an actor who deserves far more recognition than he's gotten, is as sure-handed as they come. For starters, he doesn't declaim the lines, as too many actors do, he just speaks the words as though he were telling you something you want to hear, and as a result you listen and are glad you did. Cumpsty also serves as the production's co-director and he and Brian Kulick have put together an excellent cast, lead by Roberta Maxwell's searing Queen Margaret, the vengeful widow of the king Richard and his brothers deposed and killed; and Michael Potts as the steadfast but ill-fated Duke of Buckingham.

Mark Wendland's simple but elegant set also gives literally brilliant support. Chandeliers are raised and lowered throughout the performance, a mirrored wall slides up and down at the back of the stage, both provide just the right lights, shadows and reflections to illuminate the play in every way. It's a low-budget production and so there's a doubling and tripling of roles that is sometimes confusing and there's some hokey audience participation but not hokey enough that you don't want to participate. All in all, though, it’s the kind of show that gets you involved on every level.

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