RICHARD III - Madnani Theatre

Reviewed by Amanda Callas

Richard III is a 1950s period take on the classic Shakespeare play by Hyperactive Studios at the Madnani Theatre. It is wonderful to see a packaged, enthusiastic house in the center of Hollywood for Shakespearean tragedy. Richard IIIoffers one of Shakespeare's most enthralling villains, a scheming, malevolent character who sabotages the cherished peace of England after a long civil war and cooly murders anyone, even his own family members, to get to the throne. Directed by Ben Horwitz, this engaging, fresh production of Richard III offers some striking performances, anchored by a powerful lead turn by actor, co-director and producer Sonny Lira.

Sonny Lira is a vigorous, charismatic Richard of Gloucester. Addictively watchable, he shines on stage, a true creature of the theatre, with a dancer's expressive physicality, a bell-clear, perfectly enunciated voice that could wake the dead, and never-ending dynamic energy that is the heartbeat of the play. Shakespeare can be a challenge for many actors, and Sonny Lira revels in it - the kettle-boil raging of emotion, the eloquent, archaic thicket of entangled diction, and the monumental scale of the tragedy. He plunges into the ugliness of Richard without any inhibition, bringing out a toothy awkwardness and a ghoulishness that are transfixing. There is something in Lira's lusty embrace of the character's repulsiveness that is absolutely mesmerizing.  

Lira has great acting and conspiratorial chemistry with a very talented Jerry Gureghian as Lord Buckingham. Gureghian brings a rich, quiet confidence and a casualness and naturalism to the dialogue that are very compelling. Gureghian reminds me of peak Boogie Nights Burt Reynolds, with a "less is more" philosophy that is refreshing to see in Shakespeare.

The ensemble is rich with engrossing performances. Sadie C brings delicious sly humor and evil glamor to the part of the assassin. Her glib executioner character could really have her own series. BJ Wolf has great attitude and presence as Lord Hastings, and saunters on stage with such feline elan that the audience laughed and applauded. Mikkel Simons is stately and poised as Queen Margaret, with wondrous fury in her curses. Sara Laskey as Queen Elizabeth tackles Shakespearean dialogue with great naturalistic delivery, with perfect timing that makes the lines sound contemporary and deeply felt.

Johnny Austen stands out as a classically trained actor with perfect command of the material as Lord Rivers and Richmond. He has a distinctive leonine stage presence, with a captivating simplicity and gracefulness. Austen reminds me of a young Johnny Depp or Cary Elwes, and it will be interesting to watch what he does next. His rousing battle speeches at the end of the play are exhilarating.

The 1950s setting and costumes, like the glamorous smoking jackets and use of 1950s music, work unexpectedly well to create the atmosphere, as well as the striking use of fascist-feeling military costumes at the end. This feels like a dynamic independent production with a bold, exciting vision. Richard III still seems rather early in its lifespan, still facing some directorial and technical challenges to refine. There are blocking challenges in an intimate theatre with a quite large cast where we can sometimes lose the actors on stage. Direction can feel a bit scattered and could use more focus and clarity. There is some jagged casting and pacing, with some actors working in different styles. I like the music and sound effects, and I would have loved to see and hear more of them, and to see more experimentation with the adventuresome lighting effects to create more punctuation and mood. I hope this ambitious, rewarding production gets extended with a chance to see a longer run.

It is a pleasure to watch this great Shakespeare play leap to life with gusto on the Madnani Theatre stage, and to see these striking performances from Hyperactive Studios.

Richard III ended November 5th at the Madnani Theatre in Hollywood. Find out more by calling 818-770-0873 or at

Posted By DH Magazine on November 09, 2023 03:24 pm | Permalink