Blanche Dubois may have relied on the kindness of strangers, but theater has always relied on the treachery of villains. Evildoers have provided a slippery cornerstone to drama since its inception, with every era treasuring its favorite fiends. The title character of Richard III, on the boards at Georgia Shakespeare, was both a typical example and a brilliant refinement of the nefarious schemer of Elizabethan melodrama. And to showcase a very familiar, modern-day variation of that theme, the Jewish Theatre of the South presents Comparing Books, a comedy that suffers in comparison.
Richard III is usually billed as a tragedy, but Richard doesn't qualify as the kind of tragic figure whose fatal flaw undoes his noble qualities. Played by Joe Knezevich at Georgia Shakespeare, Richard begins and ends as a hateful scoundrel, informing us "I am determined to prove a villain" on the play's 30th line.
Georgia Shakespeare artistic director Richard Garner helms a production that emphasizes the duality between Richard's hypocritical public face and his malignant true self. Knezevich's make-up literally cuts down the middle, with his slick-backed hair colored white on the left side, while being black on the right. He also wears a white contact lens in his left eye, as if he's half albino. The effect is comparable to the bifurcated bad guy "Two-Face" of Batman fame, and indeed, there's an almost comic-book quality in the gleeful mania of Knezevich's boastful soliloquies.
We get the point of Richard's capital-E "Evil" in those speeches, but fortunately Knezevich offers more nuanced, devilishly persuasive turns in other scenes. He and Courtney Patterson as much-abused Queen Elizabeth prove particularly impressive in their war of rhetoric late in the play. Veteran Atlanta actor James Donadio makes a strong Georgia Shakespeare debut in multiple roles, particularly as the doomed but good-hearted Clarence who tries to sway his assassins, not with saintly piety but the aggressive wordplay of a litigator.
Richard III's striking visual design provides both the production's most memorable qualities and some nagging distractions, such as the highly stylized white-face make-up worn by some performers. Perhaps Garner wishes to sharply distinguish between the multiple roles played by the same actors, but the effect puts at us a further distance from material that already features dense historical maneuverings. Richard III feels more like a series of powerful scenes rather than a vehicle of narrative momentum, but its vision is undeniably bold.
Innovation goes missing, presumed dead, in Jewish Theatre of the South's Comparing Books, which traffics in the stock villainy of the Italian mobster. It's difficult to imagine anyone coming up with a fresh variation on the leg-breaking Mafioso in the wake of "The Sopranos," and playwright Marc Goldsmith doesn't bother. Comparing Books' intimidating bookie Dominic (Jeff Portell) talks at length about "dons" and The Godfather, and even has the Francis Ford Coppola movie's soundtrack as his ring tone.
Pressuring a well-heeled college kid named Brian Feingold (Eric Mendenhall) to pay off his college debts, Dominic doesn't come across as a sadistic brute. At Brian's parents' house, Dominic admires his father's book collection and reveals an incongruous interest in literature. But Dominic's avoidance of contractions and embrace of malapropisms were threadbare mobster clichés even in the era of Guys and Dolls.
You don't have to beat a confession out of me: I laughed four, maybe five times at some of Dominic's assaults on the English language: "I myself frequently consult a pederast. For my feet." Otherwise, Comparing Books proves about as broad and boneheaded a farce as you could imagine, with Dominic and his mob boss (Barry Stoltze) passing as college faculty when Brian's parents (Mark Gray and Vicki Ellis Gray) return home unexpectedly.
Director Melanie Martin Long and her cast at least deserve credit for elevating the material to the merely lame, as opposed to the utterly agonizing. Stoltze and Portell embrace their roles with such confidence that they're almost persuasive. Portell looks as though he could fit right in with Tony Soprano's crew, maintaining the posture of a much heavier actor, as if his gut is a gun belt.
Portell plays particularly well against the lively Sharon Zoe Litzky as Brian's smarter-than-she-looks sister. Litzky's youth and diminutive stature evoke Portell's much more sinister turn opposite Ariel de Man in Actor's Express' Killer Joe three years ago. Killer Joe proved that fearsome and funny bad guys still stalk the contemporary stage, which comes as a relief. Measure Comparing Books' tired buffoonery against Richard III's vintage villainy, you might despair at the caliber of our modern-day black hats.
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