No knowledge of English history, or of the seven preceding plays in Shakespeare’s epic history cycle, is necessary to enjoy the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival’s production of "Richard III," done in modern dress. Festival director Tony Pisculli’s judicious abridgement includes key scenes that get first-timers up to speed on the multigenerational struggle between the Yorks and the Lancasters.
Pisculli does a show with an all-female cast every other year to accommodate the talented actresses who are available. The concept worked well in 2010 when he presented "Henry VI" — a three-act condensation of the three plays Shakespeare wrote about the ill-starred Lancastrian king. It works equally well this time, and the production values are better.
Presented by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival
>> Where: ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
>> When: 7:30 p.m. today through Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday
>> Cost: $20
>> Info: 800-838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com, www.hawaiishakes.org
Stephanie Keiko Kong gives a career-best performance in the title role as one of Shakespeare’s most vividly written and complicated characters. Highlight moments include Kong’s expressive performance in the scene where Richard successfully woos a woman who hates him, and the one where Richard listens in silence while his mother tells him she regrets giving birth to him.
Pisculli surrounds Kong with several marvelous performers. Ann Brandman (Queen Margaret) spews malevolence as the embittered widow of Henry VI. Brandman stands out visually — she’s in black when others are wearing various colors, barefoot while the others wear shoes, and crouches apelike while the others stand tall. Brandman’s energetic physical performance suggests that Margaret’s hatred of the victorious Yorkists has twisted and warped her soul even while she gleefully anticipates their destruction.
Peggy Anne Siegmund (Cecily, Duchess of York) is another pillar with her portrayal of the proud matriarch of the York family. Having lost her husband and a son in the bitter war against Henry VI, the duchess gradually discovers the greatest threat to the long-term survival of the family is Richard, her youngest son.
Eden-Lee Murray (Queen Elizabeth) caps a superb performance as the wife of Richard’s brother, Edward IV, in the scene where Elizabeth realizes with horror the only way she can ensure the survival of her only surviving child, Elizabeth of York, is to convince her daughter to marry Richard — who is not only the girl’s uncle, but also the man responsible for the deaths of her two brothers.
Others stand out in slightly smaller but important roles. Nilva Panimdim (George, Duke of Clarence) and Linda Johnson (Lord Hastings) give well-rounded performances as two of the also-rans in Richard’s ruthless brand of hardball politics.
Shakespeare intended Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, to be seen as the deliverer of England from Richard’s evil and the restorer of goodness to the kingdom. Kathryn Mariko Lee embodies all those qualities and more — she almost glows with goodness — in the final scenes.