Shakespeare in the Prison: The Mobile Shakespeare Unit Takes "Richard III" on the Road

Lynn Hawley and Ron Cephas Jones in The Public Theater's Mobile Shakespeare Unit production of "Richard III"
(Photo by Joan Marcus)

"This is the most important work we do," Public Theater executive director Oskar Eustis told the audience on opening night of its stripped production of Shakespeare's "Richard III" (through August 25) at its downtown theater while, five miles uptown, the company's marquee production of "Into the Woods" in Central Park was about to begin that evening's performance. This lean, 100-minute "Richard," which the nine-actor company had just finished performing in halfway houses, homeless shelters, and maximum security prisons, is the latest of the Public's Mobile Shakespeare Unit productions, and at the core of the theater's bottom-up approach.

"Shakespeare in the Park is great," Eustes continued, "but that only reaches a tiny percentage of people for whom Shakespeare is already important. With the Mobile Shakespeare Unit we're seeking out these marginalized groups and telling them, 'Yes, the most important writer in the English language wrote for you, this is yours.'"

With that mission of cultural egalitarianism in mind, "Richard III" seems a particularly bold choice for the Unit's second outing, since it chronicles a power-mad man's bloody and manipulative quest for England's crown. One can only imagine how inmates at Riker's Island or residents of a shelter for battered women responded to the Duke of Gloucester's homicidal ascent to the throne, but the audience catching the production's post-tour residency at the Public took great pleasure in Ron Cephas Jones's demonic turn as Richard.

Hunched and hobbling as he paces the stage, smiling and winking as he outlines his fiendish plot, and breathing ferociously while he crosses out names of his murdered family on a large genealogical tree — a helpful device given the production's necessarily bare bones format — Jones's incredible facility with the language and unique physicality make for a disturbingly seductive performance. Not surprisingly, the scene in which he seduces Lady Anne (Michelle Beck) alongside the corpse of her husband, whom Richard has just murdered, is among the strongest.

Jones dominates director Amanda Dehnert's swift production, while a slightly uneven cast swirls about him, many of them playing multiple parts and most of them dying by his hand at least once. Suzanne Bertish, as the banished Queen Margaret, is especially strong, and Lynn Hawley comes around in a stunning late scene when her Queen Elizabeth helps Richard woo her daughter Anne. Miriam A. Hyman's brief turn as a bishop with a thick Jamaican accent marks another inspired choice. However, many of the actors taking on multiple smaller roles resort too frequently to shouting, a strategy that, in a play so filled with anger and despair, muffles their pains rather than accentuating them.

Particularly for a production that has been presented in settings where the act of yelling is so bound up with issues of authority, control, and trauma, this seems an unfortunate choice. Thankfully, Jones remains firmly in control of the procedings, and he delivers his most powerful and terrifying lines softly, with a crooked smile.

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit's "Richard III" continues at the Public Theater through August 25.