Lawrence B. Johnson / Special to The Detroit News
According to a well-churned mix of fact and legend, King Richard III of England gained his crown through cunning, duplicity and numerous murders. He managed to keep it for all of two years, before falling in battle against the next claimant in 1485.
It’s a safe prediction that the theatrical reign of Edmund Alyn Jones, a Detroit native and first-year member of the Hilberry Theatre graduate program at Wayne State University, will last a good deal longer.
Jones makes a prodigiously impressive turn as the ambitious, malevolent Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in Hilberry’s winning production of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Debate still rages over the character of the historical Richard, who apparently suffered from some physical deformity that helped to fuel the legend of his monstrous assault on the English throne. There’s even an international organization devoted to the rehabilitation of Richard’s image.
But Shakespeare, writing a century after the king’s death, eagerly and vividly embraced every hideous quality ever ascribed to Richard to create the marvelous melodrama that is “Richard III.” And Edmund Alyn Jones has the Bard’s bent, hobbling, cutthroat monarch down to a T.
Indeed, Jones takes Richard over the top to madness, reveling in the single-minded duke’s schemes and mayhem with equal measures of glee and pride. The calculating Richard tells us, in a soliloquy, that since his deformity excludes him for the companionship of women and generally causes society to shun him, he shall find his pleasure in villainy. And he is skilled at it.
Yet it is not the mere impersonation of madness that makes Jones’ Richard so astonishing, especially from so young an actor. It is his considered and nuanced command of Shakespeare’s language, not only in its pulse and cadence but also in its essential and layered expressions of irony, bitterness, ruthlessness.
And this from Richard’s very first words, the famously wry expostulation: “Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.” As he spits those sarcastic lines, Jones’ stooped Richard gestures with almost casual contempt toward the sitting King Edward IV.
It is the first of many dry quips that enliven, humanize — or, if you like, dehumanize — this young actor’s take on one of the greatest of Shakespearean villains. There really is no end to Richard’s Machiavellian ploys, and Jones engages each little demonic twist with whole-hearted wickedness. So cavalier is this Richard’s evil, that he can throw away a confession of unspeakable crime and make us laugh at the wonder of it.
When Richard, steeped in blood, finally gains the crown and paranoia overwhelms him, Jones modulates from dark-edged humor to bestial brooding, the lion surrounded. No longer can Richard trust even his faithful co-conspirator Buckingham (the stalwart Alan Ball), and Jones brings to the fearful king a careening anxiety that will usher him toward his doom.
The real co-star of Hilberry’s production is director Alison C. Vesely, who has made whole cloth of an elaborate tapestry of characters and charged this enterprise with unflagging energy. Her players understand not just their words but also their tumultuous emotional states. There’s slaughter afoot and they are helpless to stop it.
Amid a large supporting cast, Carollette Phillips and Samantha Rosentrater offer notably touching performances as palace survivors whose loved ones have fallen to Richard’s henchmen. As Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth, Rosentrater delivers a heart-stabbing response upon hearing that even her two young sons have fallen prey to Richard. It’s one of the few moments when the viewer’s eyes escape the thrall of Jones.
Lawrence B. Johnson is a cultural writer and critic. firstname.lastname@example.org
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