at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The African Company Presents Richard III
by Carlyle Brown
The African Company Presents Richard III is a very satisfying vehicle to exhibit extraordinary acting in service of a a not terrible, not overwrought script.
The play-within-a-play scenes give us some riveting moments as the actors play their characters and then their characters slip into their roles in Shakespeare's Richard III for a few stanzas.
Kevin Kenerly (as James Hewlett) is excellent and the dominating presence on stage throughout the evening. He's sweet, stupid, overly focused, driven, and practical as Hewlett, and then instantly differently mesmerizing as he goes into actor mode and creates a scene of Shakespeare. Kenerly and his character hold the performances (the main story and the encased Richard III) together to the extent that I am puzzled at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's use of Charles Robinson (Papa Shakespeare) in the PR shots for the play. Robinson, pictured larger than Kenerly on the right in the screen scrape of the OSF trailer, was wonderful as the wise and non-standard-thinking Papa Shakespeare. Papa Shakespeare is an essential motivator for the action. But, still, in this production Kenerly's character that is at the heart of all the story lines. The use of Robinson in the PR makes me wonder if Kenerly hadn't been so commanding, would I have seen a different play? Maybe the PR focused on Robinson because Papa Shakespeare is supposed to be the lead?
Whatever. For the production shown at OSF Kenerly is in charge of the on stage action, in the middle all the plots, and he guided me skillfully through the evening. It was a very enjoyable ride.
The other actors, including Robinson, were absolutely first class. Robinson navigated his sketchy character around its whirlpools of weirdness and let him have meaning and wisdom from the first moment on stage.
Tiffany Rachelle Stewart (as Ann Johnson) was perfectly repressed, angry, coy, and in love. Stewart's amazing good looks helped her transmit youth and vulnerability, and her easy beauty made her self-preserving stubbornness more powerful.
Peter Macon (William Henry Brown) restrained his normal on-stage blustering and delivered the best performance I've seen from him. Gina Daniels as Sarah was a treat in all her scenes: straight-forward, clear, and appropriate. The cut-out bad guys were ably presented by Michael Elich (Stephen Price) and Mark Murphy (Constable-man).
Okay. So we've now applauded the cast. They deserve it.
Unfortunately, the play just isn't written that well. The history-based plot is intriguing: in the 1820's a company of black actors in Manhattan decide to produce Richard III at the same time as the major white-owned playhouse is starting its run of Richard III. This is a powerful premise for a play.
However, what's was written in The African Company is predictable, one-sided, heavy-handed, and just not that interesting. We learn about the motivations of the members of the African Company. We get some interpersonal interaction, especially between Kenerly's and Stewart's characters. The evil white playhouse manager, Stephen Price, gets racist and corrupt white officials, including Constable-man, to shut down the African Company's version. The African Company members persevere in their artistic determination and find an authentic way to express themselves in the future. The end.
The language and writing suffers wretchedly in comparison with the lines from Shakespeare that are the play within a play. I wanted to see the talented actors on stage throw away the okay words of the external story and launch into a full version of Richard III. With this cast, that would have been some performance!
Yes, everything clicked and fit together in The African Company Presents Richard III. I left feeling I had been entertained. The acting was world class. But, there just wasn't enough in the play itself to make me a raving fan. At the end of the evening I didn't feel transformed. At best I felt informed about an ugly-but-inspiring bit of American history.