The biggest problem with First Folio's production of Richard III, Shakespeare's telling of the English king with a notorious lust for power who claims the throne through deceit and the murder of his own family, is that rather than being set in the 16th century (or any one century, for that matter), it seems to be set in several centuries at once. The fault lies entirely with the costumes, which appear very slapdash. Some of the male characters have little more than a dress shirt and a fancy vest over black slacks; others don full, wide sleeves and capes. The women wear skirts above the ankle, which didn't happen anywhere, let alone England, until well into the 20th century. During a scene where Richard is considered as the next king, one girl shows up, sits on the side of the stage, takes notes, and does it all in an above-the-knee frock that could be straight out of J. Crew's fall lineup. A limited costuming budget is understandable, but if corners need to be cut, at least do it consistently. Moreover, if funds are unavailable for period costumes, tackle a play with less demanding finery.
The sets, likewise, do little to help with the anachronisms. While well-constructed and otherwise nicely done, they are too modern. Even more bizarre, when Richard is crowned, he sits on a dark and twisted black and purple throne that bears no similarity to any of the surrounding sets or props. Undoubtedly, the message is that Richard himself is dark and twisted, but after two hours of watching his machinations, the audience does not need an out-of-place bit of scenery to drive the point home. Rather than enhance the ideas of the play, it only serves to confuse.
There are many things companies can play with in Shakespeare: staging, line delivery, even omitting scenes for better flow or to play to a different audience. The one thing you can't do, or at the very least shouldn't do, is add. Just before Richard has his brother George, Duke of Clarence, murdered, the jailer keeping watch starts singing Rufus Wainwright's "Hallelujah" from the "Shrek" soundtrack. It makes no sense. The calming effect on George can be achieved by humming; the heavy, ominous mood could be conveyed with well thought out blocking. There is never cause to mess with the text. What's next? Rihanna's "Umbrella" during "The Tempest?"
The few bright spots lay with a handful of actors, notably Kevin McKillip as Richard. He is deliciously evil and you love to hate him. His worst machinations are his most intriguing moments. And McKillip so embodies the character's misshapen physical form that it takes you by surprise when he drops the limp for the curtain call. He uses his cane throughout as adeptly and effectively as an extra limb. Also notable are Nick Sandys as Buckingham, Richard's right hand man, and Patrick Clear as the doomed King Edward. Both have a wonderful sense of delivery, and command the stage. King Edward isn't a particularly big part; he has only one major scene, but he did more with the character and is ultimately more memorable than most of the other actors who had far more opportunity to steal the show. Sandys is likewise, in his element. He falls into stride alongside McKillip and is fantastic to the end. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for much of the supporting cast. Some are adequate, most are utterly forgettable, and in the case of Ravi Batista (Lady Anne), sub par and very poorly cast. Even so, kudos must be given to all on stage for speaking over and drawing attention away from the very loud cicadas plaguing the suburbs this summer.
An extremely well done moment comes when Richard and the future Henry VII—enemies vying for the crown—are visited by the ghosts of Richard's many murdered friends and family. While each sleep at opposite ends of the eerily lit stage, the dead are silhouetted against a sheet on the balcony above. In the dark night, it is equal parts dark for Richard and hopeful for Henry, perfectly channeling the mood and message of the proceeding. It sets up the climactic final battle and Richard's eventual fall, and sends chills down your spine.
The play ends on a high note. The battle at Bosworth Field is very well-staged. It is chaotic without being distracting; characters are easily followed to their eventual success or demise. It is difficult at such a late stage in a production to muster such excitement and adrenaline, but all actors are up to the task and deserve great credit for giving it everything they've got.
If you decide to see Richard III at the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook, remember to bring a few extra layers and maybe a blanket; even in summer, it gets a bit brisk in the forest preserve at night.