Highly Recommended ****
It is the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and the Chicago theatre scene abounds with productions of his work. The equity “Gift Theatre” is staging Richard III at Steppenwolf’s Garage Rep, nearly adjacent to the main theatre, rather than in its own small, but deservedly renowned, stage in Jefferson Park. This gives director Jessica Thebus the space necessary to accommodate the complexities of the play’s plot and she does so with strong blocking and original conceits. The stage, really an open floor, poses challenges for direction of the play; mainly, how to make it look theatrical. However, such challenges were deftly handled by the technical work. The Scenic designers’ (Jacqueline Pendrod and Rick Pendrod) shadowy, discrete, trees in the background give the feel of the Medieval English forest in a very English and Medieval play. Likewise, the lighting was as apropos to each moment as it was intense, the charging play’s mood and character’s passions like lightning. Finally, the consummate sound design (Kevin O’Donnell), greatly facilitating some of the play’s highest drama and evoking more emotion in a more effective and complete fashion that I have never heard sound design do.
The chief conceit of the play is that Richard III (Michael Patrick Thornton) is in a wheel chair with a modern prosthetic device that allows him to sometimes walk slowly. This is certainly an interesting and thought provoking choice, and emphasizes that for a modern audience Richard’s disability makes him more, not less, sympathetic. However, although Thornton is extremely dexterous at wheeling around the stage with the chair in a fashion that accentuates the plot, high politics, and his conniving. It sometimes feels too anachronistic, give in the rest of the costumes are fairly minimalist and Medieval with the exception of the late Elizabethan neck ruff’s (Sully Rake) Thornton handles asides and soliloquys, during which the custom of freezing other cast members is brilliantly revived, with wonderful skill. He is tormented, conniving, and politicking as if the stakes are life and death (which they are). However, he falls short in his interactions with the rest of the cast, often failing to come through as an entirely credible entity, especially in difficult scenes such as wooing his future, Queen, Anne Neville. (Olivia Cygan), Cygan, by constrast, was so passionate and convincing that I kept waiting with anticipation for her scenes.
In fact, the female leads turn in the strongest performances Jenna Avery as the grieving Queen Elizabeth, Shanesia Davis as the hysterically vengeful Queen Margaret, Caroline Lotta as the wise; long-enduring; and wistful Duchess of York (It helps to know either English History or the play well, or preferably both, before viewing). Indeed, the female actresses were so talented that one wonders why in such a long production, the incredibly powerful Act 4, Scene I in which the Duchess advises Queen Elizabeth and Queen Anne as the latter is led to her coronation is left out to her coronation is cut.
Thus the play, despite boasting wonderful performances by the actresses, remains concretely about Richard as an anti-hero and the director’s take on his disability (now verified by the discovery of his skeleton nullifying the Ricardian partisan’s claims that his hump was purely a piece of Tudor imagination and propaganda) when it could have been so much more. Nonetheless, Thornton’s powerful asides and soliloquys, Thebus’s blocking, John Tovar’s fight direction, the play’s superb technical aspects, and the actresses universally powerful performances as medieval noble women make the play well worth seeing as Thebus and Thornton turns Richard into more than a villain and Richard III into more than a piece of Tudor propaganda.
The play runs through May 1, 2016 at the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, located at 1624 N. Halsted Street Chicago. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 3:30 pm. Regular Tickets are between $30 and $40 dollars. Student Tickets are $15 with a valid Student ID (one ticket per student). There is a $5 discount for groups of 10 or more people. To purchase call 312-335-1650. Parking is available in the garage itself and on the street (metered). Some of the residential areas have permit parking only, so be careful.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Richard III”