Richard III: Shakespeare as you like it

Chances are you're a passionate fan of the theater who has nodded off during Shakespeare at one time or another; productions of his plays often are plagued by murky delivery that boggles an otherwise eager mind.

The antidote to that unfortunately frequent problem can now be found in Orinda. California Shakespeare Theater opens its season with a production of “Richard III” that's the Bard at its very best: clear, understandable, involving, powerful, funny, tragic. It has an impressive cast and a sensational actor in the title role — they're but fringe benefits next to the central cause of rejoicing: clarity.

Director Mark Rucker, dialect coach Fonta Hadley and the entire cast should be accorded thespian sainthood for this accomplishment: a 1592 play badmouthing a 15th-century king who rose to power (for a mere two-year reign, and his death at age 32) in the midst of complex and convoluted machinations by a dizzying galaxy of royalism, and here you are four centuries later in an open-air theater (birds singing, jets overhead), and you understand every single word. That is just thrilling in its defiance of odds and possibilities

First among equals in the great-diction department: Reg Rogers, the Hollywood-Broadway-TV actor who portrays the (Shakespeare-maligned) twisted, murderous, unspeakable Duke of Gloucester with such ease and elan that you can't help liking, really liking, him. There are Richards who are terrifying and Richards who play the role for camp; Rogers combines the two and adds a “human element” often missing from “Richard III” productions.

Rogers sports the traditional hump and bad leg and withered arm, but the personality he projects is so charming and powerful, when he seduces widows of his victims on the way to the funeral, the grotesque act becomes believable. Besides letting the role “breathe” with meaningful pauses and an excellent combination of text and body language, Rogers also brings a sense of enjoyment to his work, similar to a singer reveling in the music he performs.

Cal Shakespeare Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone has assembled a who's who of veteran Bay Area favorites: James Carpenter (Edward IV and Clarence), Dan Hiatt (Buckingham), Liam Vincent (Catesby), Lorri Holt (Queen Elizabeth), Catherine Castellanos (Queen Margaret), Sharon Lockwood (Duchess of York), and others — already fusing into an ensemble early in the run.

While the production “jazzes things up” with snatches of 1940s pop music and modern dress under big capes, it doesn't improve any performance. At the same time, there is nothing in the show that seriously handicaps the triumph of language.

A reminder even to Bruns Amphitheater old-timers: bundle up not only for evening performances in that spectacular watershed, but for matinees as well. Opening weekend's Sunday performance started at 4 p.m. in 70 balmy degrees, but by the end of Act 1, the temperature was down to about 50, a situation not ameliorated by a brisk wind. Of course, the business end of the chill hits the actors much worse than the audience, especially those performing all-but-nude. Brrrr.

Note: Here is a spoiler to the note outside the theater, warning about “non-frontal nudity.” When his shorts come off, it's the actor's non-front that faces the audience, quite unnecessarily.

IF YOU GO

Richard III

Presented by California Shakespeare Theater

Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 Gateway Blvd., Orinda

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday; closes June 24

Tickets: $32 to $60

Contact: (510) 548-9666 or www.calshakes.org  

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