Summer Shakespeare is back.
For the 37th time, Shakespeare in Delaware Park has returned with the first of two plays by the Bard of Avon along the shores of Hoyt Lake, where canoes glide and gulls swoop; a great blue heron visited on opening night. Peaceful. Serene. Idyllic.
Well, at least until actor Tim Newell begins to recite the famous first lines of "Richard III," a history tale from Shakespeare's dark side: "Now is the winter of our discontent," he sardonically tells his audience confidants, an ominous start to his bloody narration of his trail to the British throne. His villainy begins at once. The body count rises rapidly.
In Shakespeare's version of the story, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was born in 1452 -- "unfinished," he admits -- with several physical handicaps: a withered arm, a gimpy leg, a hunchback. "Sent into this world half-made up," he laments. Dogs bark at him. When his evil plans are gradually discovered, Richard is called "a bottled spider," "an elfish, marked, abortive, rooting hog" and "a foul lump of deformity." And those insults were from kin.
As Newell's malignant Richard lopes about, he discloses to everyone what he's going to do next. His favorite word is "dispatch." His brothers, his nephews -- princes, heirs, they could be a problem -- his allies Hastings and Buckingham, are dispatched in rapid fashion. Richard, off-center funny, self-deprecating, can be strangely appealing. His sister-in-law, Lady Anne, widowed now thanks to him, is wooed over her dead husband's coffin. "I'll have her," says the cackling one, "but not for long." Next?
Richard finds that it's good to be the king but uneasy lies the crown, so the saying goes. A challenger, the Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), defeats Richard's forces on Bosworth Field. He slays the "poisonous toad" after a fierce battle brilliantly staged, aided by Chris Cavanagh's superb lighting design. "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richard famously utters at the last. Peace is restored.
Director Saul Elkin has assembled a cast of 25, some familiar summer Shakespearians mixing with new faces, returnees and a surprise or two. All are able. Newell is a splendid Richard, emphasizing a warped mind rather than his twisted body (Elizabethans thought the two were inseparable). He's very fine early on as the organizer of his awful deeds and later as a participant. He's almost likable. Newell seems to have a knack for villainy: Years back, he brought plenty of menace to the role of Iago in SDP's summer "Othello."
Worthy in soliloquy and among the throng are Robert Rutland, oily and precise as Buckingham; Lisa Vitrano as mad Lady Margaret; David Lundy as Lord Hastings; Jacob Mirer as Clarence; Eileen Dugan as Queen Elizabeth; Kay Kerimian as Lady Anne; Jay Desiderio, long absent from local stages, as the Archbishop of York; Nicholas Lama as good guy Lord Rivers; and Adam Roth as a shouting Richmond. There is competent work by an ensemble playing multiple roles.
Director Elkin has found parallels in "Richard III" with corporate greed and power grabs -- Wall Street, Madison Avenue, the halls of government -- so backstabbing, disloyal guys in suits, a la television's "Mad Men" series, are numerous. Costumes have been designed by Donna Massimo. The modern-day garb doesn't add to the overall production; neither does it hurt. Just a little Shakespearian tweaking.
"Richard III" is long and involved. Director Elkin, after some innovative but sleepwalking opening moments, speeds the many comings and goings along the best he can on a drab monolithic set by Nathan Elsener. Steve Vaughn's fight choreography is again stellar, and there is admirable work by a huge technical crew.
The SDP short season is dedicated this year to the late Western New York theater community icon Neil Garvey. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" will follow "Richard III" from July 26 to Aug. 19.
Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)
Presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays through July 15 by Shakespeare in Delaware Park, Shakespeare Hill, behind the Rose Garden and Marcy Casino. Free.
Call 856-4533 or visit www.shakespeareindelawarepark.org.