Review: `Richard III’

opened June 2, 2007, Bruns Amphitheater, Orinda

Villainy rules in Cal Shakes’ masterful Richard III
three [1/2] stars A Richard to remember

This smart, funny man can’t be all bad, can he?

When we meet the man who will become King Richard III in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, we’re completely charmed by him.

As he sheds his armor, we notice his right arm hangs limply at his side, while the hump on his back and his uneven legs have left his body twisted. But his self-deprecating wit — “…so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” — disarms us.

That’s the trick. He can make us laugh with the way he says one silly word (“lute”), but then, just as we’re basking in his glow, he tells us something important. “And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain.”

As played by Reg Rogers, making his Cal Shakes debut, Richard immediately has the audience on his side, which is key in any production of Richard III. Horrible things happen because of Richard — beheadings, betrayals, fratricide, to name a few — but we like him. We really like him. It takes most of the play and a staggering body count to make us finally admit that he really is a bad egg.

At Saturday’s chilly, fog-enshrouded opening-night performance in Orinda, the audience was fully taken in by Rogers’ Richard, and that’s a sure sign of success for director Mark Rucker.

The production may be three hours, but it doesn’t feel long because Rucker moves things along at a startling pace and keeps our focus intently trained.

Erik Flatmo’s set is all rough, raw plywood and utility lights (a whole lot of utility lights, fluorescent and otherwise) as if to let us know that we’re in a kingdom in such turmoil that nothing ever gets finished. This is the time, after all, of the War of the Roses, the thorny battle between the houses of York and Lancaster to get their kings on the throne.

The warring families are so weary of fighting, and their numbers so decimated, the moment is ripe for an ambitious egoist to seize the moment and catapult himself onto the throne. That’s exactly what Richard does, putting his brother in prison and then having him murdered, taking allies into his confidence and then turning on them, and, most famously, murdering two boy princes in the Tower of London.

Rogers’ charming ferocity and his keen physicality (Richard often looks like he’s dancing or skipping, when really he’s just trying to remain upright) carry the evening without question. His Richard carries us willingly into the heart of evil, and except for all the blood and horror, it’s an enjoyable place to be.

The rest of the cast — outfitted in flowing robes by costume designer Katherine Roth — is excellent but can’t quite wrest the spotlight away from Richard, and that’s only right.

There are exceptions. Catherine Castellanos as the ousted Queen Margaret, widow of King Henry VI, makes two memorable appearances. The first time we see her, she’s raving and cursing like a mad woman. The second, she is part of a quartet of spurned queens — Lorri Holt as Queen Elizabeth, Susannah Livingston as Richard’s wife, Anne, and Sharon Lockwood as Richard’s mother — who find strength in their shared misery and resolve to fight the tyranny.

Rucker’s production begins with Kay Starr’s 1952 hit “Wheel of Fortune,” which brings a smile before the villainy begins. But that pop song becomes the play’s theme, and in one brilliant scene, Richard even sings it himself.

Political villainy is timeless, as Shakespeare knew, and Cal Shakes’ vivid, engrossing Richard III reminds us that the really bad guys — the ones with charm and intelligence — can make us laugh and slice us in half between chuckles.

For information about Richard III, visit

Reg Rogers tackles `Richard III’

King Richard III is more than mean. He woos a grieving widow whose husband he has killed himself. He orders the murders of two child princes in the Tower of London. He kills his wife so he can marry his cousin.

But to Reg Rogers, the actor playing Richard in California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening Richard III, the character is not just a villain.

“He’s villainous and does bad things, but he’s got his reasons,” says Rogers, 42. “We’re trying to find the vulnerable side of a tyrant.”

Rogers pauses after he says that and laughs a little.

“Saying that makes me think of a TV movie I made about Attila the Hun, and it was sort of, you know, `The Misunderstood Attila the Hun.’ It was so bad,” Rogers says. “With Richard, it’s not quite as simple as that. He says something toward the end of the play, `Men shall deal unadvisedly sometimes, which after hours give leisure to repent,’ and he’s trying to play a game he played earlier in the play, but it doesn’t work as well. He’s saying, look, I’m sorry I made the wrong choice, but f— it. I’m here now. There’s a lot going on in this guy’s head.”

Rogers has been working primarily in New York for the last few years, both on Broadway and off. He’s also been popping up in movies and on TV.

Local audiences might know him from his work with Shakespeare Santa Cruz in the early ’90s, or from his most recent Bay Area appearance, in 2004 opposite Olympia Dukakis in “A Mother” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater.

Cal Shakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone was in Rogers’ class at Yale School of Drama and has wanted to get Rogers out here for some time.

The opportunity to work at Moscone’s outdoor theater in the Orinda Hills combined with the chance to work with another Yale classmate, director Mark Rucker, were strong pulls for Rogers, but the real deciding factor was that his pie-eating-alien services were no longer required.

Rogers had filmed a pilot for Fox called “Them,” about a terrorist cell of aliens, and that window between making the pilot and finding out if the network will pick it up allows a certain amount of freedom.

Rogers decided to use that freedom to do a play in California with his friends. Turns out that Fox didn’t care enough about the aliens, all of whom are having a hard time adjusting to the complications of pretending to be human.

“I played this sort of shrink/parole officer dealing with aliens who can’t cope with human emotions,” Rogers explains. “They’re not used to desire. My guy felt that if you let a little desire in, you build up the antibodies for it. His desire was for pie, so he had cupboards full of pie.”

From a baked-goods-hoarding E.T. to a hunchbacked monarch who would give his kingdom for a horse _ such a transition surely keeps an actor on his toes.

While working with Rucker in Santa Cruz, Rogers says, he began to feel secure in the world of Shakespeare.

“That’s when I started to figure out my approach to the language, right or wrong,” Rogers says. “Mark and I did a King Lear there, and my character, Edmund, got to talk to the audience a lot. I knew I didn’t want to take the Englishman’s approach. Now doing `Richard’ I get to try that again and see if I was crazy or not.”
Working with Rucker, his old friend and “one of my all-time favorite directors,” has been a joy, Rogers says, because his take on Shakespeare is so clear.

“That’s the goal with modern audiences: Make it clear,” Rogers says. “I’ve never seen anyone make it clearer than Mark or (former Shakespeare Santa Cruz artistic director and Cal Shakes audience favorite) Danny Scheie. They’re super smart and know how to let the story be the story rather than some other imposed thing.

“They’re also really good with actors. I’ve seen Mark go up to an actor and say the simplest, most immediate thing, as opposed to some diatribe that leaves the actor going, `What? I don’t even know what you meant, let alone what I’m supposed to do with that.’ Sometimes — and I have to be careful how I put this — a director’s notes can defeat the purpose. That’s not the case with Mark. He’s exactly right on.”

Though hardly an old fogy, Rogers says he’s been thinking the time was ripe to tackle Richard before he “got too old to twist myself up.” Still, the extreme physicality of the character — the hunch, the limp — has taken its toll.

“I’ve already hurt my back,” he says. “Yesterday I did something to a muscle I didn’t even know I had.”

As for the hump — doesn’t it always come down to Richard’s hump? — Rogers is pleased with it.
“What’s cool about the hump is that you can’t see it from the front,” he says. “You don’t see the hump until Richard wants you to see the hump. Our Richard uses his deformity like everything else — for his own gain. He’s such an actor. He’ll play `oh, poor me’ if he thinks it’ll help get him what he wants. It’s never not by choice with this guy.”

Richard III continues through June 24 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off the Gateway/Shakespeare Festival exit on Highway 24, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel. Tickets are $32 to $60. There’s a free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. For ticket information and to read some terrific actor blogs, visit Or call 9510) 548-9666.