Corruption and the crown

Producers of Shakespeare at Play are keeping a promise to one company member and fulfilling a dream of another with the production “Richard III” at The Colony Theatre in Burbank.

Actor Jeffrey Paul Whitman expressed interest in playing Richard III 18 years ago to Shakespeare at Play Executive Director Debbie Gates, and she promised if they ever produced the play, he could.

This event is a special engagement of the company — which regularly performs William Shakespeare's works and other classic plays in the Burbank Unified School District and produces Shakespeare in the Park at Burbank's Lincoln Park each summer — in honor of Whitman, who has a neurological disorder, Charcot-Marie-Tooth, that causes patients to slowly lose normal use of their feet/legs and hands/arms as nerves to the extremities degenerate and the muscles in the extremities become weakened.

Members of the company have known one another for 20 years, and they are coming together for this production in support of Whitman, Gates said.

“We're doing this play to celebrate Jeffrey Paul Whitman,” she said, adding that such challenging roles may be more difficult for him in the future.

Since King Richard has some disfigurements, Whitman is overemphasizing the problems he's having with his feet and adding a limp to King Richard's walk.

Whitman, a founding member of Shakespeare at Play, has been performing Shakespearean roles for the past 25 years, he said. His favorite roles are Puck in “Midsummer Night's Dream,” Banquo in “Macbeth” and Feste, which he played in Shakespeare at Play's 2007 production of “Twelfth Night”.

The challenge of playing King Richard is mustering up the energy to portray the wide range of emotions of Shakespeare's most ruthless character, Whitman said.

“He embodies villainy,” Whitman said. “He gets to do and think what many don't allow themselves to think and never act upon. It's the dream role of a lifetime for an actor to portray this character. It requires a high degree of skill with Shakespeare's words and language.”

The language is one of the reasons director A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, is drawn to the play, he said.

“You can't avoid loving it, if you love Shakespeare,” he said. “It's such a beautifully written play. There is no waste in it. It's packed full of wonderful language.”

As Whitman has anticipated portraying Richard, Schoenberg has always wanted to direct the play, Gates said.

“He has been wanting to direct 'Richard III' for a long time,” Gates said. “He had this vision and he told me about it, and I said 'OK. That will work'. I let people do this so they can spread their wings.”

Schoenberg is keeping true to the way the play was written, he said.

“I'm not taking a particular angle with the play,” he said. “Sometimes you over-improve modern interpretations. Sometimes approaching a play for its own sake is most rewarding.”

He has directed Shakespearean plays in Orange County, but this is his directorial debut with Shakespeare at Play, he said.


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