Arts & Events

Theater Review: 'Richard the First,' a Trilogy of Plays by Gary Graves--Central Works at the Berkeley City Club

By Ken Bullock
Monday October 29, 2012 - 03:35:00 PM

"I need to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where all sins are forgiven!"

Richard Coeur de Lion, The Lionheart ... Richard the First of England, Duke of Aquitaine, of Normandy and Gascony, Lord of Cyprus, Count of Anjou, of Maine and Nantes, Overlord of Brittany ... Malek al-Inkitar to Arabic speakers ...

So many titles and monickers, so many legends, from the 12th century, on, legends of his courage and subtlety--and ruthlessness--in war, of his mission as crusader, his capture for ransom on return and supposed discovery by the troubadour Blondel. These legends were taken up again--and added to--by Sir Walter Scott in 'Ivanhoe' and 'The Talisman,' the first linking him with Robin Hood, the second bringing up the old legend of the Ismaili "Assassins" during the Crusades. He's a major player in William Goldman's witty play 'The Lion on Winter,' as one of the scheming sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, played in the film by Antony Hopkins ...

Now Gary Graves, co-director of Central Works, has written an ambitious trilogy on Richard, staged with equal ambition--and great verve--by Jan Zvaifler, the troupe's other director. A kind of intimate epic is unfolding in the confines of the City Club where Central Works has been in residence for years, taking its audiences on whirlwind tours of medieval Britain, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Levant, as absorbing an entertainment as any offered by bigger theaters with greater budgets--indeed, more so--or many cinema blockbusters. 

Seeing just the first part, 'Taking the Cross,' a breakneck-paced but perfectly articulated series of vignettes that take Richard from his coronation and the declaration of his mother Eleanor as Queen in his absence, to Sicily in a rescue of his sister Joanna and confrontation with Philip of France, to departure for Palestine, as he must choose between two fiancees ... the greatest impressions are of the acting by the ensemble--especially Joshua Schell's energetic tour-de-force as Richard--and the sheer fun of following the thread of vignettes and tableaus that string the story out like an old-time serial, like a novel that both relaxes and stimulates. 

Milissa Carey carries herself with irony as Eleanor the brilliant schemer, inventor of the Courts of Love; John Patrick Moore plays Philip with ambiguity, protesting he's Richard's friend with a mixture of awe and envy; Megan Trout's the perfect ingenue as Richard's kid sister, the beleaguered Lady of Sicily; Armando McClain puts forth a mighty apocalyptic jeremiad (intercut with Richard's ecstatic recital of his battles) as the hermit Joachim--of Flora, no doubt, the visionary beatified by the Franciscans and the Church for his revelatory sense of history that influenced Dante; and Kathryn Zdan is Rachel, a wandering Jewess, the most mysterious of the cast, seeking out Richard as he travels after the imbroglio at his coronation with Jewish legates from the London community. 

The action's played out under Jeff Wincek's great medieval map of the world, connected with the counterpoint of Gregory Scharpen's brief hits of music and sound, a kind of film score for the montage of scenes. The acting, stage direction and Tammy Berlin's costumes carry the show; no elaborate set design, the hallmark of the bigger theaters, necessary to this engrossing tale. 

The exhilaration of the flow of scenes is also counterpointed by many moments that stand out in tableau--one being the three-way embrace of Philip, Joanna (who's just been promised to him by her brother) and a dejected Richard, turning away from the locked pair, with Philip's hand on his shoulder, as Gary Graves' lights fade ... 

It's a combination of a jolt of medieval history--which, as Graves mentions in the program, has resonance today due to the Crusades--and sheer storytelling, fictionalization, like all previous recountings of this brazen figure's tangled adventures. The actors' accents--excellent here, where in many productions they sap the energy--are a farrago of stage speech, delivered with wit and energy ... A good way to solve the problem of a fast-moving cosmopolitan story of 800 years ago. (Born in Oxford, Richard never spoke English, speaking and writing songs and poetry in Lemosi, the Provencal or Catalan-like idiom of Limousin, and French.) It's a little like what Howard Hawks said William Faulkner told him for the dialogue of 'Land of the Pharoahs': "He said he just didn't know how a Pharaoh would talk!" This, and a few other calculated anachronisms, keep the plot flowing without stiffness, a hard thing in an action-filled historical drama.  

There's plenty of intrigue, war stories, reversals of fortune, changing of sides in intra-familial tiffs that spill over onto the battlefield--a cliffhanger every minute, which Richard, pulling out all the emotional stops, seems to revel in. 

And it's great to see full houses the first weekend for Central Works, a small company that has always done choice work, with taste and a professionality that rivals the bigger theaters, hopefully gaining through this audacious trilogy the popular recognition they've deserved for some time. 

Don't miss 'Richard the Third.' If you're familiar with Central Work's excellence, you'll be pleased at their new scope. If you're unfamiliar with their work, it could be a revelation of what one local little theater company is capable of--worthy of the Lionheart monicker. 

The three parts of 'Richard the Third'--"Taking Up the Cross," "Lionheart" and "A King's Ransom"--play in rotation Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p. m. and Sundays at 5, with two marathons of all three parts on two Sundays, November 11 and 18 at 2, 5 and 8 p. m. There will be a post-show talk-back on Sunday, November 4.  

At the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (between Ellsworth and Dana). $25 online or $25-$14 sliding scale at the door.; 558-1381.