by Hedy Weiss
October 2, 2009
We see it happening almost every day, with headlines from all corners of the globe trumpeting the latest violent military coup, the newest brazenly stolen election or the dirtiest machinations of party bosses. The stench is familiar. So is the instant recognition that it all will bring great suffering and that it all will be futile in the end.
The quest for total political power—and the insatiable hunger it seems to generate—has always been with us. But few playwrights had a more remarkable grasp on such drives than Shakespeare. And Richard III is among the playwright's most masterful case studies of the psychology, treachery, brutality and sheer mania involved in the pursuit of such an inevitably doomed goal.
Here is the tale of a physically and emotionally warped member of a royal family who will stop at nothing to seize the throne and assure his place on it. And it is this cold, relentless mania that is captured so powerfully in director Barbara Gaines' superbly etched, richly detailed, sharply modern (yet simultaneously timeless) rendering of the play now at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.
Gaines gives us a sleek, icy-gray production scrubbed raw of sentimentality. The action unspools in black prisons, underground morgues, chilly inner sanctums, starkly mirrored battlefields and one theatrical coup—the ascent of an eerily lit tomb packed with Richard's victims that is enough to spook even this monster. A palpable sense of death and corruption is everywhere, and only in the final minutes does Gaines give us one glorious ray of hope. Neil Patel's minimalist set, Robert Wierzel's sepulchral lighting and Susan E. Mickey's costumes are works of dark magic.
When we first see the man who will become King Richard III (Wallace Acton), he is perched on a black marble step like a human gargoyle. Small, quick and clipped in his speech, Acton gives us a volatile, lip-smackingly good rendering of a man dazzled by his own manipulative skills. Often he scurries around the edges of the action like a rodent.
Richard is loathed by women but knows how to make the most of their powerlessness. And Gaines' production is particularly effective in showing how they are undone by him as they try to protect themselves and their children.
Jennifer Harmon is brilliant as Margaret, the exiled former queen who spews her curses at all her usurpers, with Angela Ingersoll (as commanding in the classics as she is in musicals) radiant as Lady Anne, the young widow so hideously seduced by Richard; Wendy Robie, fully distraught as Queen Elizabeth, whose sons are murdered, and Mary Ann Thebus, relentless as the mother who loathes her own son.
Phillip James Brannon is a poetic Clarence, with John Lister, Dan Kenney, Matt DeCaro and all the other royals and henchmen leaving their marks. As Elizabeth's young son, Matthew Heffernan's sly body language tells us he knows his fate at Richard's hands. And Brendan Marshall-Rashid's brief but luminous arrival in the final scene is richly cathartic after so much slaughter.
by Dan Zeff
October 1, 2009
There are dozens of characters in Shakespeare's Richard III, but only one who counts, Richard himself. A revival that provides a solid Richard is in good shape. So much the better if the staging has a strong supporting cast, imaginative directing, and a creative physical production.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater presentation of Richard III has it all, starting with Wallace Acton in the title role. The CST recruited Acton from Washington, D.C., and he is brilliant. In the first two scenes, Acton establishes his credentials for the role by rendering Richard in all his diabolical villainy. He's clever, charming, intelligent, and a lip-smacking personification of evil, taking the audience into his confidence in his opening monologue and allowing us to tag along on his murderous ascent to the crown of England.
Acton is a handsome man, which goes against the grain of the misshapen Richard's ugliness. Acton expresses the man's physical deformity with a limp, a hump on his back, and a withered arm pressed close to his body. But the viewer adjusts quickly to the outer physical disability. It's the inner man who fascinates.
Acton's Richard nimbly plays a double role, advising us of his evil plans to gain the throne of England and murder anyone in his way, whether it be brother, wife, or children. At the same time, he sells his sincerity to the English court, a group of aristocrats well versed in politics and backstabbing but out of their depth against Richard's ambition. The man is a monster but you have to admire his cynical sense of humor and his skill at manipulation.
We know Acton is the man for the role after the success of the famous early scene with Lady Anne. The Duke of Gloucester (he's not yet King Richard) woos Anne over the dead body of her father-in-law, King Henry VI, who the duke has killed (he had previously killed her husband). Anne loathes Gloucester but he insinuates himself into her confidence with a dazzling display of guile and chutzpah.
CST patrons who have been a little uneasy with some of the more eccentric recent Shakespeare productions should rejoice with this Richard III. Under Barbara Gaines's shrewd directing, this is straight ahead Shakespeare, clearly spoken and handsomely cast. The visuals complement the action rather than distract. The stage is mostly bare, relying on dramatic lighting effects to punctuate much of the action. The costumes run from Elizabethan to the 18th century.
Gaines excels in staging the production's big set pieces. The scene in which Richard fakes his reluctance to accept the crown is played with an adroit blend of comedy and sinister dramatic impact. Richard poses on a balcony while his thugs menacingly mix among the crowd at stage level, looking for dissenters. Richard's dream scene before the battle of Bosworth Field mixes fog and lighting, combined with an elevator that carries Richard's many victims to stage level to haunt him with their "despair and die" curse. In the concluding sword fight between Richard and the Earl of Richmond (the future Henry VII), Richard is about to dispatch his adversary when the shades of the king's victims materialize before him. Richard stands transfixed, allowing Richmond to recover and run him through with a sword.
The best part of the play comes before the single intermission. Richard is much more entertaining as he connives and kills his way to the crown. Once he installs himself as king, Richard loses most of his disingenuous veneer and the viciousness and paranoia take over, but Acton accomplishes the personality transition without missing a beat. The second half also gets bogged down agonized lamentations against Richard from the play's four female characters. It's all persuasively delivered but the ranting gets a bit repetitious, however genuine the grievances among the ladies.
Quality supporting performances abound. Phillip James Brannon is superb as the Duke of Clarence in his death scene, incredulous to the last that his beloved brother could actually be the author of his doom. Jennifer Harmon is outstanding as Queen Margaret, who weaves through the play as a shrill avenging angel. Angela Ingersoll is a fine foil for Acton in the wooing scene. John Lister contributes maybe the most dominating supporting performance as Lord Hastings, just one of the court personages who miscalculate Richard's true nature, to their doom. Brendan Marshall-Rashid comes on late as a convincing heroic Richmond.
Mary Ann Thebus is terrific as the Duchess of York, a woman who has suffered the most from Richard's lethal nature. Dan Kenney gets high marks as Catesby, Richard's loyal and bloodthirsty henchman. There is also good work by Demetrios Troy as Lord Rivers, Juan Gabriel Ruiz as Lord Grey, Wendy Robie as Queen Elizabeth, and Matt DeCaro in his single major scene as King Edward IV.
But this is Acton's show. Hopefully he'll be invited back. With the insinuating charm and malevolence he displays as Richard, he would make a magnificent Iago if the CST contemplates reviving Othello.
Neil Patel designed the minimalist set, punctuated at the appropriate dramatic moment with blood red draperies. Susan Mickey designed the costumes, Robert Wierzel the lighting, and Lindsay Jones the sound and original music that effectively bring a heavy metal rock sound to mirror the turbulence on stage.