The women own Ten Bucks Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.”
I’m not talking about the women taking on men’s roles, leading and supporting. I mean the ones portraying the mothers of the men and boys the Duke of Gloucester slaughters to take the throne — Queen Elizabeth (Julie Arnold Lisnet), Lady Anne (Aimee Gerow), Queen Margaret (Bunny Barclay) and the Duchess of Gloucester (Alison Cox).
As Richard kills his way to the throne, it is these women who must live with the loss of their husbands and children. It their portrayal of that pain that gives this production its soul, not the Duke of Gloucester’s scheming with his cohorts and henchmen.
Director Dan Hanchrow, directing a Shakespeare Under the Stars’ production for the first time, cast women in many of the major male roles, including Richard (Angela Bonacasa) and his main co-conspirator, the Duke of Buckingham (Jennifer Snow). This sort of gender-bending has become common in professional, community, college and school productions of William Shakespeare’s plays.
Most notably, Ten Bucks did it for a production of “Julius Caesar” in 2014. It was not convincing, but is more successful in “Richard III.”
Hanchrow, whose resume includes work at the Rockland Shakespeare Company in Suffern, New York, located about an hour north of New York City, is more successful at having the women, with one notable exception, portray men believably. He also keeps the actors moving as they speak, a problem that doomed last year’s “Macbeth.”
The director and Bonacasa, a stage combat instructor, choreograph the best and, perhaps longest, fight scene that has ever been performed in a Ten Bucks’ show in the climax of “Richard III.” It is thrilling, breathtaking and beautiful to watch.
But back to those women. Barclay gives her most powerful and moving performance with Ten Bucks as she curses “that poisonous bunch backed toad” and his future. A tall, thin woman with long arms and legs, Barclay’s Queen Margaret, the widow of murdered King Henry VI, resembles a spider weaving a web to ensnare Richard. She is mesmerizing in the role.
Lisnet is equally fine as the wife of King Edward IV (Ron Lisnet) and mother of the young princes (Augi Baker and Zane Baker). Her grief turns to rage as she appeals to Margaret, saying: “O thou well skill’d in curses, stay awhile, and teach me how to curse mine enemies!” Elizabeth’s determination to protect her daughter from Richard allows Lisnet to spew the bitter yet beautiful words: “Send to her, by the man that slew her brothers, a pair of bleeding hearts; theron engrave Edward and York, then haply she will weep.”
Gerow and Cox come close to matching these two queens. Cox’s disgust at having borne a murderer is cunningly played. Gerow is fine as the bereft widow disgusted by Richard’s proposal, but she fails to portray Anne’s competing attraction to his power.
As for Bonacasa’s Richard, she captures his deformities with a limp and arm held tightly to her chest. The actress gives him a mild demeanor that lets the audience see how other men underestimate his determination to take the throne and do not see the evil heart beating in his breast as the women do. Bonacasa’s portrayal of Richard is a bit too subtle in contrast to the strong performances of Barclay and Lisnet.
Undermining Bonacasa’s interpretation of the lead role is Hanchrow’s poor choice to cast Snow as Richard’s prime co-conspirator, Buckingham. Her looks, including long red hair with top knots, and the high timber of her voice make it difficult to take Buckingham’s scheming with Richard seriously. At times, the two seem to be plotting to ruin a middle school lunch with too much salt rather than the deaths of so many sovereigns and their offspring.
Nathan Roach, whose performance last year in Midcoast Actors Theatre was searing, is excellent as Richmond, the man who slays Richard and unites the kingdom. Roach’s work in Belfast has opened him up to taking more risks as an actor. His Richmond is a dashing and a welcome antidote to the evil that precedes his entrance.
Hanchrow chose to costume the show in the style of the 1990s gangster movies directed by Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Everyone’s outfitted in black clothing and leather. While this helps focus the audience on Shakespeare’s words, the leather coats hide rather define the characters.
Ten Bucks’ recovery from last year’s miserable “Macbeth” is laudable but the overall quality of the production does not match that of the company’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” two years ago or “The Elephant Man” earlier this year. Perhaps as Ten Bucks celebrates its 20th season this fall and next year, it will be able to regain the high quality and consistency of its early years.
“Richard III” will be performed at 6 p.m. Thursday through Sunday outside at Orono Public Library, 39 Pine St., and at 6 p.m. Aug. 1 through 4 at Fort Knox State Historic Site in Prospect. For more information, visit tenbuckstheatre.org or call 207-884-1030.