Saturday, October 3, 2009

Theater Cricket: Richard III

About a year ago, R.A. and I were hanging out around Bryn Mawr on the North Side when we saw a flyer advertising a local production of Marlowe's The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus. It was playing just around the corner, in about an hour.

"Do you want to go?" she asked me. "But that's one of your favorite plays."

"No," I said. I was hungry and cranky and kind of just wanted to go home, but I had another reason for not going, too: "They'll just do it wrong, anyways."

Dr. Faustus is one of those pieces that I like so much that I'm really an ass about anyone else's interpretation of it. Mephisto is always played either too coy or not enough. Faustus is always either too much the sadist or way too much the martyr. I like to think that lots of people feel this way about certain plays or books or movies; one has such a relationship with the text that you become almost jealous when someone else dares to claim it as their own.

And so another play that I'm going to have to add to this list besides Dr. Faustus is Shakespeare's Richard III. I attended Barbara Gaines' production of this play last week at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, and I couldn't stop thinking during the entire performance, "You're doing it wrong!" And, although my opinion of the play may be colored by my otherwise unreasonable biases, the CST's unfortunate performance has inspired me to compile a brief list of dos and don'ts for would-be productions of Richard III:

1) DON'T try to make Richard III into Macbeth. It's not. Last winter, I saw Macbeth at the CST, and thought that they did a great job of it. However, all of the tricks that made their Macbeth exciting - a stage shrouded in darkness, strobe lights representing flashes of lightning, a loud and intimidating soundtrack, long and elaborate battle scenes - proved only to be distractions in Richard III. Richard is not a tragedy - it's a history. And while it shares many of the same themes as Macbeth, themes of power, greed, and madness, these are not the driving forces behind the play. Richard III is about politics, and how even kings and queens can be swayed by gossip, by insinuations, by appeals to their vanity. In short, if Macbeth's weltanschauung is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," Richard III's is that it is "subtle, false, and treacherous," and that it "hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale..." Gaines' production sought to gloss over this important element of subtle falsehoods and treacheries by filling her Richard with sound and fury and, therefore, meaninglessness.

2) DON'T try to make Richard come off as mad or weak. He's not. For the most part, I really liked the casting in Richard III, and thought that most of the actors did an excellent job. Two of my favorites were Phillip James Brannon as Richard's brother, Clarence, and John Lister as Richard's court rival Lord Hastings. Brannon was Malcolm in CST's Macbeth, and here he has another good performance in giving "simple, plain" Clarence an edge of quiet patience and resolve. Likewise, Lister's Hastings is a good but flawed man who deeply cares about the future of England and yet also loves his wine, women, and song. Hastings is a worthy foe for Richard, and the scene in which he is finally caught by Richard's trap is one of the most rewarding in the entire play.

Which brings us to the star himself. The part of Richard is played by Wallace Acton, and almost every line he delivered made me cringe. Acton plays Richard somewhere between a schizophrenic and an ugly caricature of a gay man. He always seemed to be pawing at the other characters on stage, often literally, and with a limp wrist, coming up into their space from below, like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. The most horrendous examples of Acton's overacting is in one of Richard's final and most powerful soliloquies, when, on the eve of his final defeat, he says, in what could be a moment of sobering Realpolitik: "I shall despair. There is no creature loves me; and if I die no soul shall pity me: nay, wherefore should they, - since that I myself find in myself no pity to myself?" Rather than playing this scene as a kind of dark revelation, Acton delivers his lines almost exactly like Andy Serkis' Gollum from The Two Towers, all hissing and animal panic. Finally, Acton, like Feldman's Igor, is constantly glancing over his hunched shoulder at us, rolling his eyes and smirking, trying to get us "in on the joke." Which brings us to the last edict:

3) DON'T play Richard III as if it were a comedy. It's not. While there is a lot of humor in Richard III - especially in Richard's wit and in the absolute gall with which he goes through his schemes and manipulations - Baines' production often overplays its hand in showing this kind of perverse humor. The result is that I kept getting the impression that I was watching a political satire rather than a drama. And the secondary result is that the characters therefore come off as buffoons, as mere caricatures of people and not as the actual people themselves. This kind of lampooning of the political would be appropriate for something more modern or Brechtian - I did think of Jean Genet's Le Balcon more than once during the performance - but it then loses a certain sense of power that I think the play ought to convey. It is important for the audience to remember that Richard's foes and rivals - Lord Hastings, Elizabeth Woodville, Rivers and Grey - are very powerful and competent people. They are not mere dupes, and humiliating them as such, or letting the audience share in Richard's smugness at their being manipulated, cheapens Richard's ability to triumph over them. And this, in turn, further alienates us from the character of Richard, and makes us unable to appreciate how he rises to the power and why, once he is on the throne, he is unable to retain that position.

The CST's performance of Richard III seemed to not understand that the play works because it is about ordinary humans placed in extraordinary situations. Instead, Baines sought to substitute spectacle and symbolism for subtlety and realism. Richard III is a great play that signifies a great many different things. It symbolizes nothing.

Richard III
by William Shakespeare
directed by Barbara Gaines
September 23 - November 22, 2009
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Acton as Richard. Wendy Robie as Elizabeth. Demetrios Troy as Rivers, Juan Gabriel Ruiz as Grey, and John Reeger as Stanley.

The Chicago Tribune was equally unimpressed.

The Sun-Times seemed to like everything about the play that I disliked.

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