Two shows I decided on are set in the same arena – England; the mythos of England — just opened in New York, full of inconsistencies and sparks of magic. Richard IIIwhich opens the season of the Public Theatre’s 60th Shakespeare in the Park, features a ferocious Danai Gurira in the title role and a solid, yet virtually dramaturgically cohesive ensemble. Between the linesa new musical based on a novel by Jodie Picoult (co-written with her daughter Samantha van Leer), has a fun spark of storybook whimsy, but wears itself out by spreading too thin.
Directed by Robert O’Hara, this Richard III is a muddled take on what looks great – on Myung Hee Cho’s hub of cathedral-like arches that look like a kaleidoscope crown of teeth, eerily and brightly lit by Alex Jainchill; in the rich suits of Dede Ayite – but that doesn’t look too convincing. That’s partly because Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design and compositions can’t decide whether it’s a period-appropriate narrative or one that might sprinkle trap music sporadically.
But it is above all because, as in his reinterpretation of Long day trip into night earlier this year, O’Hara’s interventions feel more like experiments, aimed directly at certain parts of the text, but not paying too much attention to the work as a whole. His characters here are perfectly played by a solid cast – among them Ali Stroker, Sanjit de Silva and Sharon Washington – but are not bound by any unifying vision, fear or atmosphere.
Like the ambitious Richard of Gloucester, sending obstacles left and right (children are not spared) in his quest for the throne, Gurira embodies his hunger, but not the passion; stamina, but not dynamism, exacerbating the production’s main problem: its lack of any air of dread or impending tragedy.
Despite the inert bloodshed of this production, it might still prove too violent for your public library’s young and young-at-heart book club. Walk in Between the lines, with a book by Timothy Allen McDonald and music and lyrics by Elyssa Samsel and Kate Anderson. Combining the plot of its titular book with that of its sequel, it follows Delilah (Arielle Jacobs), a bookworm entering first grade at a new school after she and her mother (Julia Murney) are forced to move following a complicated divorce.
Finding solace in a rare storybook she finds in the school library, she falls in love with her heroic prince (all-smiling, charming Jake David Smith) and, ultimately, falls into it. There the magical characters are played, Wizard of Oz-style, by people in her real life: popular mean girl Allie (Aubrey Matalon, standing in for Hillary Fisher the night I saw the show) is the whiny princess Seraphima; her dumb jock boyfriend Ryan (Will Burton) becomes a man cursed for being a dog; and his own mother becomes the alcoholic Queen Maureen.
It’s a lovely setup, and the cast is thoroughly, genuinely happy to inhabit these mirrored worlds. The production is all the better for it, but too many interesting characters is a double-edged sword for the story, which crumbles under the pressure to make sure everyone has a number (making it perfect for school productions). With 24 two-act songs, you’ll start to wonder how much you really need a psychiatrist character, or how many of a verse his fairy tale counterpart gets.
In truth, the two characters who needed After times on stage are those played by the hilarious Vicki Lewis. As the school’s horny librarian, she gets the number that directly confronts the cardigan-covered excitement of Barnes & Nobles regulars in “Mr. Darcy and Me,” which makes good use of an already delightful used extensively by set design by Tobin Ost, lighting by Jason Lyons and projections by Caite Hevner.In the world of fairy tales, she is the queen’s lady-in-waiting, alluding to the true darkness contained in these storybook archetypes.
Despite the overly generous song cast, the book’s humor veers into garish coffee-cup and joke territory – I’m shocked no one is wearing a ‘Don’t Talk To Me Until I’ t-shirt. ve Had My Brontë” – and some rather tasteless feminist “deconstructions” of the trope of the knight in shining armor, among others. But after a while, I began to admire him for his purity of heart and his clearly defined ambitions. This may not be my cup of tea, but again I’m not into the Borders set anymore.
Richard II is performing until July 17, 2022 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in New York City. For tickets and more information, go here.
Between the lines is performing at the Tony Kiser Theater on West 43rd Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, go here.