Carlyle Brown’s study of the first African-American theater company has clear relevance for Congo Square, which has quickly established itself as one of the nation’s finest continuers of that tradition. Like the Shakespeare play that provides its focus, “The African Company” is spotty and dramatically somewhat shapeless, but capable at its best of eliciting intense fascination. Brown, for instance, brilliantly echoes the infamous scene in which Richard woos the lady Anne literally over her husband’s dead body. In Brown’s revision, it’s James Hewlett (Anthony Irons), the actor playing Richard, who must coax his reluctant leading lady Ann (the luminous Ericka Ratcliff), succeeding only via the intervention of griot Papa Shakespeare (Allen Gilmore). Gilmore played Hewlett in the play’s New York production; he brings passion and snappy wit to the bitterly wise Shakespeare, who owes his name to a master’s cruel joke. Irons’ Hewlett, on the other hand, comes off much as his notices within the play suggest. He is histrionically correct, but surprisingly brittle. The play, overstuffed with plot, leaves many of its themes underdeveloped, and Sean Michael Kaplan plays the company’s white competitor like the Snidely Whiplash lookalike that he is, complete with cape and waxed moustache. This production remains a captivating look at a relatively unexplored piece of theater, and American, history. (John Beer)
Congo Square’s “The African Company Presents Richard III” plays at the Duncan YMCA, 1001 West Roosevelt, (773)296-1108, through October 15.