I have never seen an audience quit a show so readily. When, midway through the opening night performance of The Tragedy of King Richard III, the villainous Duke of Gloucester succeeded in slaughtering his way to the throne of England and the intermission finally arrived like a merciful godsend, there was a mass exodus from the grassy slope that is the summer home of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Granted, a warm May evening had turned unexpectedly cool and scores of theatergoers were caught in Forest Park underdressed. But the big chill aside, there was an even more urgent reason to call it an early night: The cold truth is that this Richard is a numbing bore.
The production is a textbook study in how not to stage Shakespeare. From the outset, vagueness trumps specificity. In what time period is this chronicle of high-stakes political intrigue playing out? Where are we? Viewers deserve to know these things. Because the scenery and costumes are so uninformative, there is no entrée into the action, nothing for a playgoer to cling to, no reason to get involved. How are we supposed to separate and clarify all these chalky supporting characters: Grey, Hastings and Stanley; Catesby, Ratcliffe and Lovell? Even the best-intentioned playgoer needs to be steered through this murderous maze. Instead actors drone on to no purpose whatever because no story is being told. That's the crux of the problem: A play is being recited, but no story is being told.
Which brings us to the perennial debate: to cut or not to cut. No matter how many trims have been made here, it's not nearly enough. Like our misshapen protagonist, the evening limps on — for nearly three hours. The folks who run the Shakespeare festival had better come to terms with the fact that they're living in the 21st century, an era in which words have been supplanted by images. Even for free, today's groundlings will not willingly be force-fed huge doses of obscure prose.
How do you engage an audience in Richard's laborious saga today? For starters, you find the play's through-line — and you can only find it by trimming the text. Ian McKellan adapted this story to film in a brisk and ingeniously compelling 100 minutes. OK, so theater is not film; nevertheless, attention must be paid to visual storytelling. This production is not only verbose; it is visually dull.
Of course, it might help to have a Richard. He is, after all, a deliciously diabolical creation. On the page he is cunning, ruthless, outrageous, brilliant and even (if not charming) captivating. Andrew Borba is none of the above. Borba is at best competent, but he reveals no singular handle on the character, takes no relish in the mayhem he's causing, does not command the stage. In fairness it should be noted that Borba was not well served by director Matthew Arbour, who brings no point of view to these proceedings. Consider, for instance, the early scene when Richard woos Lady Anne (Magan Wiles, miscast) over the coffin of her husband, whom our would-be seducer has just killed. As staged by Arbour, this normally foolproof scene has no rise, no fall, no tension, no humor. Alas, in retrospect we realize that it foreshadows the flatness that is to dominate the night.
As the protracted evening hobbles to a close, Arbour brings the taunting ghosts of Richard's many victims out of his tent and onto the battlefield itself — an intriguing conceit that insinuates the possibility that mental anguish drives Richard to his doom. But by now it's 10:45 p.m., which is a little late to introduce originality.
Surely there are many valid reasons to mount Richard: parallels to be made with our own divisive time, lessons to be learned from this treatise on corruptive power. But as presented here, Richard III is a sorry exercise in irrelevance.