Richard III

Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Nic Dimond

At the Strawdog Theatre in Chicago
A review of the performance on Feb. 22, 2008

Pity the villain. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is one of those characters who can charm people into suspending their disgust at his evil behavior, if not altogether forgiving it. He stirs their sympathy, or at least their respect for his ability to do so, by claiming that his malevolence is actually bitterness toward the many people who, over the years, have rejected him because of his deformity. What, he asks us, do we expect from an unwilling emotional exile?

Strawdog Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Richard III has some interesting moments, but it suffers from incongruities. In the program notes, Director Dimond explains his interpretation of Richard's deformity to be psychological rather than physical. Dimond believes, in fact, that rendering Richard a hunchback "cheapens the whole story". So, the Richard in this production has no physical deformity. Unfortunately, this absence made the dialogue that explicitly refers to a deformity dangle like a participle with no antecedent. Even worse is the fact that it stripped credibility from Richard's claim that he was a victim of circumstance and persecution.

Shakespeare creates a Richard whose wit is brilliant, whose reasoning -- or rationalizing? -- is savvy, and whose determination to get what he wants is inexorable. Shakespeare uses these qualities to seduce us into sympathizing with Richard, as he portrays himself early in the play to be an object of prejudice. Therefore, the actor who assumes the role of Richard III must give us a villain we cannot dismiss quickly. In fact, he must bring us to believe either that Richard is trying to deceive us with his manipulations, all the while knowing his own motives to be transparent, or that Richard genuinely sees himself as a victim for whom evil is the logical, even natural, recourse.

Creating such complexity in a character only begins with the author's skill. Eventually, the actor who takes on the role must forge an uncomfortable trichotomy in Richard's charm, narcissism, and introspection, and thereby have us wondering whether there's anything resembling a conscience in Richard's soul. Is he really a sociopath, incapable of empathy, remorse, or love? Or is he an unfortunate whom harsh social rejection has driven to evil acts?

We mustn't underestimate the power of charisma to attenuate a person's darker actions in the eyes of those around him. Many nefarious men and women have charmed their way out of responsibility, or at least out of a reputation for irredeemability. Nevertheless, Richard's evil eventually becomes undeniable as we realize that he's just using his deformity as a tool to acquire power. Unfortunately, because the Richard in this production has no deformity to use as a tool, there's a gaping hole in the story. Late in the play, however, after he assumes the throne and after Richmond launches his revolt, the stream of Richard's soliloquies stops and the mist of his charm evaporates to reveal his egregious wickedness.

In the first 11 of 17 scenes, John Henry Roberts, who played the title role, neither delivered complexity nor aroused sympathy. Instead, his Richard was just a stereotypical villain whose manipulations were laughably obvious, and who presented no intellectual or emotional challenge to the audience. In fact, the simplicity that Roberts forced into his Richard brought the role down to the level of a Snidely Whiplash. The worst instance of this occurred during the scene in which Buckingham is trying to convince the Lord Mayor that Richard should be crowned king. Roberts and his two ersatz bishops turned the scene into a silly comedy sketch that was wholly malapropos to the play, trivializing a critical turn of events in the story, making the situation preposterous, and reducing the Lord Mayor, aldermen, and citizens to utter cretins.

In the final five scenes, however, after assuming the throne, Roberts' King Richard had undergone a startling metamorphosis, no less evil, of course, but markedly more unstable and more intense -- and I daresay interesting. He seemed to alternate between lucidity and madness, at times switching very abruptly between the two states. Roberts created not only a manifest desperation, expected in a tyrant who believes his power to be teetering, but also a possible wisp of remorse, which, I admit, remained equivocal. Nevertheless, despite what some could brush aside as histrionics or hyperemotionalism, Roberts' second-act performance was arguably in line with his character's trajectory toward imminent demise.

In the role of Margaret, Janet Ulrich Brooks gave a performance that was no less than superb. Righteous indignation never sounded so visceral or genuine or persuasive. She resonated with the role in that she seemed to understand not only Margaret herself but also her relationship to the other characters. Consequently, whenever she was on stage, Brooks commanded both the scene and the audience's attention.

Regarding technique, let me mention Brooks' remarkably smooth delivery; there was nary a hint of memorization. In fact, every word she spoke sounded instinctive to her character. Her diction was clear and her timing sharp, unlike that of several others in this production, and her body language enhanced the lines she was speaking.

Also outstanding was the performance of Jennifer Avery, who played Elizabeth. Avery's lines were effortless, as though unpremeditated. Her acting skill was impressive, and she was just as effective at conveying anxiety as she was with confidence, resignation, or anger.

Early in the play, James Anthony Zoccoli was tentative and somewhat clumsy, but eventually hit his stride in the role of Buckingham. About halfway through, his articulation suddenly sharpened and his eyes took on a strong expressiveness. In his better moments, Zoccoli's Buckingham was urbane and disarming, sometimes even smarmy, showing a mastery of nuance that gave color to his scenes, especially those with Richard.

As a victim of Richard's treachery, Anne is an important character in the story inasmuch as she represents how skillfully Richard beguiles the unwary -- or if not unwary, then uncritical -- into sympathizing with him and forgiving his evil ways. She gives Richard his first taste of success in his emotional manipulations. Anne's transition from outrage to capitulation requires the actress to make this improbability believable. In the role of Anne, unfortunately, Anita Deely didn't meet this challenge with her bland and uninflected performance. As a result, we got no insight into her character, and Roberts lost his single most precious opportunity in the play to develop Richard's sinister charm.

Anderson Lawfer, in the role of George, had what could have been an embarrassingly corny moment in his character's emotional breakdown while in prison. Although Lawfer's performance was generally adequate, his dramatic collapse into tears was exceptional for its apparent spontaneity. Cynicism comes easy when one is watching an actor cry on stage, but Lawfer created a touching moment, free of any maudlin overtones to diminish it.

As the Duchess of York, Lynne Hall left me wondering what she was trying to achieve in her part. Her acting had an air of saccharine melodrama with a touch of sheepishness, as though she was actually mocking the actresses in soap operas. Perhaps she was trying to portray her character as meek and melodramatic by nature, to draw a contrast with the stronger women in Margaret and Elizabeth. I don't know the answer to that question, but I do prefer said possibility to the simple one that Hall's acting was just weak.

Designed by Nikki Delhomme, the costumes in this production still puzzle me. If there was a unifying theme, I may have missed it. My guess is that she was dressing each character to fit his or her personality, or to accentuate some aspect of it, rather than finding a common style or settling on a common historical epoch. If so, then she captured the timelessness of this play in her designs. Several costumes seemed goth, while others had Victorian or Renaissance elements. Elizabeth's formal gown was modern and sleek, while Richard wore tails without the white tie and black patent leathers (In fact, and I regret to say it, when he strode quickly across stage, it was hard not to think of Groucho Marx).

Richard III is pregnant with interpretations. It's easy to treat as an allegory for the practice of excusing evil and for putting blind faith in an outward persona. Because Richard clearly would have failed in his Machiavellian pursuit of power had someone stopped him, the play is as much about the moral laziness of those around Richard as it is about the evil nature of Richard himself. And lurking throughout the play, moreover, is the hazy distinction between right and wrong. After all, Richard does execute other evildoers, George included, despite getting his own comeuppance at the end. Its individual strengths notwithstanding, Strawdog's interpretation of this classic play and the sometimes uninspired acting blunted the impact that these and other provocative questions would otherwise have had.