The titular character of Shakespeare’s Richard III might win the prize for most conniving malcontent in the history of drama, yet audiences continue flocking to witness his murderous rampage. The history was arguably Shakespeare’s first successful play. It was smart scheduling that Barbara Gaines’ production at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre coincides with Halloween. Gaines ekes out as much of the terror and eeriness from Shakespeare’s spirit-filled script as is possible. Stark yet innovative, Gaines’ Richard is sleekly designed, but it lacks clarity.
Athough his mind and soul seem to be as malevolently contorted as his disfigured body, Richard is a wildly charismatic character. His allure comes from his tantalizing wit, cunning, and heavy dose of charm, which is why we can watch him wreck a perfectly peaceful kingdom for nearly three hours. You try wooing a woman who thinks you executed her father and husband. Then do it with a hunchback. Richard may be vile, but he definitely gets points for personal magnetism.
Wallace Acton’s portrayal of Richard has plenty of eelish appeal. A renowned Shakespearean actor (especially around Washington, D.C.), he has the slick ability to draw in an audience. Unfortunately, Acton’s power dissipates a bit due to some weak delivery. Considering his vast experience, I am surprised at the difficulty I had understanding Acton. His delivery of Richard’s famed opening speech is rapid and oddly soft. I could understand the disgust motivating the monologue, but I couldn’t understand the monologue. Acton captures the stately yet shrewd demeanor required for Richard, but he traps himself by internalizing the character at key moments. As a result, the audience is left wondering about the reasoning behind the character’s cruel undertakings. Acton really shines in the public scenes. Richard’s talent for manipulation and exploitation pop when Acton deals with crowds or discourses with the other lords. In these scenes, Acton subtlety hints at the gears turning in Richard’s wheeling political mind. If Acton could transfer this attention to detail to the more personal scenes, his Richard would be fiendishly captivating. Instead, the audience misses some crucial facets of Richard’s character.
Even though Richard carries the play on his lumpy shoulders, there are some richly layered secondary characters in the play. Luckily for Acton, the ensemble offers undying support. Kevin Gudahl deeply portrays Richard’s co-conspirator, Lord Buckingham. Gudahl displays Buckingham’s hunger for power as well as his hesitation regarding some of Richard’s more psychopathic tendencies. In the small yet powerful role of Lady Anne, Angela Ingersoll is terrific. Ingersoll’s passionate anger and catatonic self-loathing makes me wish Shakespeare had expanded the role much further. The female roles in Richard III strike a balance within the play (they are the only ones who seem to really stand up against Richard) even though they are mostly marginalized by Richard’s scheming. Queen Margaret (a feisty Jennifer Harmon) is another great example of this; unlike most of the male characters, she calls out the murderous king but fails at breaking his homicidal desires.
Gaines shoots for a simple yet disturbing aesthetic with this production. Her designers create a hodgepodge world of Renaissance, urban contemporary, and horror movie. Upon walking into the theatre, Neil Patel’s set looks deceptively simple. Black, marble-like slabs of different sizes and heights create the topography of the deep thrust space. The stage floor is as distorted as Richard’s body and soul. Platforms on the floor are raised and lowered to create tables and other surfaces, making the production very streamlined. Lighting is deftly utilized. Robert Wierzel’s design creates the specific locations that the non-descript set cannot. It also kicks up the suspense a few notches (with lots of flashlight-ghost-story effects). The design falters when it provides eerie mood lighting in the empty space beyond the thrust. While I believe Wierzel is shooting for a spooky, fluttering effect, it comes off as stray lights being left on. Susan E. Mickey’s costume design complements the set design well, providing much of the color for the show. Hands down the biggest successes of the production are the ghost sequences, which are silently unsettling. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything creepier in a theatre.
While the design clicks together and seems very honed to telling a cohesive story, Gaines’ direction cannot fit all the pieces together. Some key plot points are glossed over, and I ended up playing catch up for much of the production. There are times my mind was quickly reeling over who was being taken to prison, who was being executed, or who just had been executed—all this compounded the problem by making me miss more significant moments. In general, if the complex of relationships and alliances of the play can be served up more, the entire production will become much more digestible.
By the final “my kingdom for a horse” battle, I was more or less clear on everything. I’m still wondering who gave Richard the power to blow through all those people before he was actually the king, but that’s my own journey. Despite its flaws, CST’s Richard III is a brutal theatrical experience, thrusting the machinations, desperations and hauntings of a sociopath on stage.
Richard III runs September 23 – November 22 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, 800 East Grand Avenue on Navy Pier Chicago, IL 60611. Information can be found at http://www.chicagoshakes.com/.