Let it never be said that the Mobile Theatre Unit is not a delightful name. It conjures up images of dramaturgical first responders speeding through the night to on-stage disasters. (“Quick, Robin, to the Bardmobile!”) To the scene of tragedy, these people bring Tragedy. The Unit—let’s call it that—is currently staging Richard III at the Public Theater (through August 25), following a three-week tour of such hotbeds of dramatic art as Riker’s Island and New Jersey homeless shelters. At these inauspicious locations our selfless thespians ladle out Shakespeare like so much free soup, delivering the good news that among the many things of which the audience has been deprived, it has also been missing out on Elizabethan drama.
This whole worthy concept is enormously off-putting for the interested theatergoer. After all, try tempting along a friend with this line: “It’s great! It’s the stuff poor people get for nothing, but we have to pay!” When I attended, the artistic director gave a pre-performance peroration that made the works of Shakespeare sound like the Bill of Rights. I sank into my seat: Was ever critic in this humor wooed? Was ever critic in this humor won?
Actually, there’s nothing to fear. The production gives the lie to any notion that big-theater Shakespeare, with some Hollywood behemoth in the lead, is the bona fide best to be had. After all, Shakespeare’s plays survive on the strength of language alone, and the poetry is best appreciated with the minimum of show and bombast in an intimate location. At the Public, there’s neither stage nor set to speak of. On the front row, you can feel the actors’ breath; the intimacy is borderline inappropriate.
Ron Cephas Jones plays Richard with suitable relish, much aided by an extraordinary whip-like physique and a face modeled on a stiletto knife. He’d be a shoo-in for Mephistopheles any day of the week. Moreover, his voice has me reaching for my Wine Bible for appropriate adjectives, and his enunciation is so precise it could cut words into stone.
Other than the memory of Jones’s terrifying physiognomy, what I took home from the play was a revived appreciation of Shakespeare’s repartee. When Richard and Anne (Michelle Beck) or Queen Elizabeth (Lynn Hawley) trade barbs, the dialogue comes across as a kind of dark precursor to His Girl Friday. “Your reasons are too shallow and too quick,” says Richard to Elizabeth, having murdered her children. “Oh no, my reasons are too deep and too dead,” she responds. Great fun!
I can’t honestly say whether bringing Richard III to the underprivileged is an efficient use of resources. Some members of the audience will have seen enough violence already. Do they now need it in blank verse? But simple talent justifies the Unit’s existence, and well-off New Yorkers have no reason to turn up their noses. Having taken Shakespeare to the underserved, the cast proves more than capable of delivering it to the city’s undeserving.