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As the fall season opens, at least two Brooklyn theater groups are turning their eyes toward the seamier side of human existence - murder most dramatic. At the Brooklyn Lyceum, Jeff Subik’s production of "Richard II" plays Sept. 5-29, while the Heights Players stages "Anatomy of a Murder" from Sept. 6 through Sept. 22.

Shakespeare’s "Tragedy of Richard II" tells the story of a prince who has ascended to the throne while still a child, a man who is convinced of his divine right to rule, but nonetheless loses both his kingdom and his life due to his own folly.

Tom Ellis, who directs the Brooklyn Lyceum production, sees a strong analogy between Richard and the American people and our leader post-9-11. President George W. Bush is a man who, to a great extent, has stepped into office by right of birth. We are a people who were convinced of our invulnerability - until a symbol of our pride and power was struck down by international terrorists who used our own technology as instruments of destruction.

However tempting this analogy may be, it can only go so far. Shakespeare lived in a time when the divine nature of a king or queen’s right to rule was largely unquestioned. And when the divine order of the world was upset, the result was often less desirable than the oppression that had instigated the insurrection.

Do Shakespeare’s sympathies lie with Richard, who is killed in prison, or Henry Bolingbroke, who overthrows him, indirectly has him killed and then undertakes a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to do penance? Over the centuries, conservatives and radicals have found justification in the play for both maintaining the status quo and overthrowing it. Indeed Shakespeare, in his typically balanced approach, leaves ample evidence that he may have favored both or either view.

Ellis, who not only directs, but also chose the costumes and the prerecorded rock score, and stars as Richard II, is a talented and innovative man of the theater. He’s a brilliant actor with a real appreciation for Shakespearean language, and an able director who has so finely choreographed the action and movement of the actors that the play sometimes seems like a dramatic dance. His choice of military apparel wisely emphasizes the militaristic nature of both Richard’s and our world.

But Ellis’ monolithic vision is all too evident throughout the play, leaving little room for the subtlety that makes Shakespeare’s characters so endlessly fascinating.

Ellis portrays Richard in so nasty and sniveling a fashion that it’s hard to reconcile Shakespeare’s magnificent words with the fool who utters them. Consequently, Bolingbroke’s role as usurper is far less ambivalent than Shakespeare may have intended.

Ellis would have done well to remember that although he calls the play "Richard II," Shakespeare called it, "The Tragedy of Richard II." Richard is a tragic figure, brought down by his own susceptibility to the flattery of courtiers, and his own conviction of his divine invincibility. In William Rose Benet’s "The Reader’s Encyclopedia," Richard is said to have been depicted in Shakespeare’s play as "an engaging man but an ineffective ruler." Not so in Ellis’ production.

The play does benefit from some fine acting. Robert Wilson Hancock is a convincing and moving John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and father of Bolingbroke, and Reese Madigan is excellent as Bolingbroke.

However, why Ellis decided to make several of the king’s courtiers women dressed in tight black miniskirts is beyond the understanding of this reviewer.

Ellis, it seems, has fallen into the same trap as such great actors as Warren Beatty in "Heaven Can Wait" and Paul Newman in "Message in a Bottle" - the trap of believing that by controlling all the major aspects of the production they could create an oeuvre of great artistic merit. But without others to check artistic excesses, the work is too often compromised.

After 400 years, no one can expect any director to slavishly follow a traditional interpretation of Shakespeare. On the other hand, any interpreter of Shakespeare would do well to explore Shakespeare in all his complexity rather than straightjacket his themes to fit a one-sided vision based on political timeliness.

Deadly ’Anatomy’

This season the Heights Players have replaced the cozy familiarity of an Agatha Christie murder-mystery with Elihu Winer’s steamy and sizzling "Anatomy of a Murder." While Christie’s genteel characters contemplate outings in the park and a glass of brandy after dinner, Winer’s denizens of a Michigan town swear, get drunk and rape people in cars.

What a delightful breath of fresh air!

"Anatomy of a Murder" is directed by Jim McNulty and stars Kerry Wolf ("The Philadelphia Story," "La Cage aux Folles," "Call Me Madame") as Paul Biegler, the reluctant defense attorney; Ken Dray (a 27-year veteran of the Heights Players) as his mentor and partner in the case; and, making his Heights Players debut, Kevin O’Brien as Frederic Manion, the Army lieutenant who is accused of killing the man who may or may not have raped his wife.

Kerry is riveting in his role. He’s honest (to a degree), courageous (when pushed to the wall) and determined (but not a crusader). Dray, as his alcoholic sidekick, is at once a gadfly and a goad. As the object of all this effort, O’Brien is a shrewd and ambiguous character. He is a liar and a fake and certainly violent enough to kill someone in cold blood. But is he telling the truth about his wife’s rape, or has he killed his wife’s lover, then beaten her and coerced her into backing his story?

This production also includes some excellent supporting actors. Bernard Bosio ("Side Man," "The Championship Season," "Romeo and Juliet," "Babes in Toyland") provides a welcome touch of humor as Alphonse Paquette, the bartender who witnessed the murder. And the Heights Players’ president, Ed Healy, is a convincing and spirited prosecutor, who struts his stuff in court.

The production, however, would have been vastly improved if Karen Rousso ("A Chorus Line," "The Philadelphia Story") had created a more sleazy and seductive Laura Manion, the alleged rape victim. Rousso is so convincing, honest and pure on the stand that Wolf seems to have an easy job of it, which is probably not what the playwright had in mind.

In fact, the 1959 film version directed by Otto Preminger starred a young Lee Remick as Laura Manion, a pretty, sexy lady in her own right. But Preminger originally wanted Lana Turner (who reportedly exchanged blows with the director) for the role and then Jayne Mansfield, who later decided against doing the film. So it’s easy to see where Preminger was headed.

Bill Wood has crafted such a realistic courtroom that the audience actually feels a part of the trial. And Marilyn Beck, as the judge, only adds to this impression with her firm and reasoned stance on the bench.

In 1959, "Anatomy of a Murder" shocked movie audiences with its frank discussion of rape, sperm and missing panties. Today, our more graphic media have dulled our ability to be scandalized or offended. But if audiences seeing the Heights Players’ production won’t be shocked, they will be absorbed by the realistic courtroom drama, the powerful clash of personalities and the never completely solved mystery of what exactly happened.

Indeed, with its test of wills, dramatic twists and turns, and ambiguous ending this courtroom drama should keep most people on the edge of their seats throughout the play. And when it’s over, more than a few will be scratching their heads still wondering what really happened.

This is courtroom drama at its very best.


"Richard II" plays through Sept. 29, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 pm. Tickets are $15. The Brooklyn Lyceum is located at 227 Fourth Ave. at President Street in Park Slope. For reservations, call (718) 857-4816 or visit

"Anatomy of a Murder" plays through Sept. 22, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $10, $8 seniors and students. The Heights Players’ theater is located at 26 Willow Place at State Street in Brooklyn Heights. For reservations, call (718) 237-2752 or visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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