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Dueling Dick

paul whitworth King of the Hill: Paul Whitworth adopts a humpback and slithers around the UCSC Performing Arts stage as the title character in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's 'Richard III.'

Paul Whitworth nibbles up the scenery in Shakespeare Santa Cruz's take on the Bard's tale of corruption and paranoia

By Christina Waters

THOSE WITH ARACHNOPHOBIA will find their flesh crawling at the sight of Paul Whitworth shuffling and gliding his way across the UCSC Performing Arts stage for the next month. Part bionic insect, part Hannibal Lecter, Whitworth's ambitiously bloodthirsty Richard is a mesmerizing piece of work in the current Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Richard III.

Director Michael Edwards' vision has been to contemporize the play about one man's unbridled lust for power by setting it in a timeless present. Timeless, yes, but more than a little X-Files. All-black costuming--save for one electrifying exception--plays off a grimly industrial setting of interlocking cages and grillwork that underscore the play's subtext of paranoia and sabotage. The throne of England, glittering golden, hangs high above the stage throughout, the mute grail in whose quest Richard systematically murders and lies his way to the top.

Yet so seductive is his plotting, so deliciously vivid his own sense of duplicity, that the play resounds with as much mordant humor--indeed it bristles with one-liners--as with gloom and doom.

From the opening salvo--"Now is the winter of our discontent"--to a final sword fight choreographed in vertiginous slow motion, this production showcases the deepening gifts of Whitworth, a classically trained talent whose physical ownership of the stage continues to astonish. On steel crutches, a five-inch-heel orthopedic boot and leg brace, he careens uncannily about the stage, stopping on a dime, loping like some cybernetic hyena. So at ease is he with all this prosthetic equipment, including Richard's celebrated hump, that even the able-bodied actors around him appear clumsy in contrast.

Armed with as handsome a set as the festival has yet devised, this company of actors moves ably through Shakespeare's tale of intrigue and corruption. To help the creaking of the text--essentially a series of pronouncements, soliloquies, assassinations and historically inspired handwringing--the context has been updated to smack more of political conspiracy and corporate takeovers than a recitation of who has killed whom in order to inherit what title.

Richard's minions appear as hit men, and those who seek to stop him are drawn as bold entrepreneurs. Given that this dramatic history lacks the fluid intertextual repartee of Shakespeare's comedies, or even the great tragedies, Edwards has chosen to let the set, lighting and sound design do much of the work of driving Richard III to its conclusion. Especially in the sound compositions by Robby MacLean and the always surprising lightwork by Kevin Adams, this strategy succeeds.

However, the text remains surprisingly lax, a tendency echoed from time to time last week by performance hesitations.

Suzanne Irving, given some of the play's juiciest invective, shimmers as one of many queens whom Richard has widowed in the course of his climb to the throne. To hear her heap curses upon his burr-cut head--"Thou elfish-mark'd, abortive, rooting hog!"--is to listen to the English language stretching toward its high-water mark.

Never has abuse been so crisply etched in literary acid, and the impeccable Irving is triumphantly up to the task.

The always commanding Ursula Meyer warms up slowly to her rage as Queen Elizabeth, but in a devastating scene of verbal venom spewed at the man who has murdered her father, husband and two sons, she is literally hell on wheels. Meyer's clarity, nuance and vocal thunder are every bit a match for Whitworth's.

As Richard's sometime collaborator Buckingham, James Gale's confident exploration of his role's complexities makes a fine foil for Whitworth's intensity.

And it is surely Whitworth who catalyzes this production. Igniting his sinister character with monumental paranoia--practically on fire with homicidal ambition--he attacks the role with generous instincts and impeccable clarity. It is in the play's slower, more ominous second portion, however, that a more mature style--and the director's firm touch--illuminate Whitworth's performance.

Slowed down to consider the ghosts of his past, his mind now as twisted as his body, this Richard sweats through his longest night just before the final horrific duel to the death. We can literally hear Whitworth thinking, sweating, gulping for air like a man descending into hell.

With lowered voice, ironic self-awareness and feverish eyes, this Richard suddenly becomes as human, as pitiable and as fundamentally alone as any one of us.

In his insight into the humanity of this "bloody dog," Whitworth achieves something close to luminescence.

Richard III runs through Aug. 30 at UCSC's Performing Arts Theater. For dates and times, check our stage listings. Tickets are available through BASS, by mail or at the Performing Arts Ticket Office. For details, call 459-2159.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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