Fall Of My Discontent

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richard-iii.jpgEvery year when I receive Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s high-gloss, visually arresting season brochure, I hesitate for a couple of seconds and stop to think that maybe this year is the year that I will finally purchase a regular season subscription.  But I don’t.  However, like Kanye West in front of a bottle of Hennessy, I lose all self-resolve during the year and purchase single tickets to most, if not all, of the season’s productions (which makes the theatergoing more expensive).  And I don’t know why; is it because, most of the time, going to Chicago Shakespeare, with its classy interiors, well-dressed patrons, hushed ushers, plush seats, and dramatic view of the lake and the Pier from every window (including the men’s bathroom’s), evokes this unmistakable feeling of going to THE THEATRE, and all the intellectual heft and palette superiority that THE THEATRE implies?  Probably not, since I have a more egalitarian, more embracing view of the power of live theater than some people.  I think it’s simply because I am always optimistic and hopeful that the production I purchased a ticket for would turn out to be more like the exuberant and contemporaneous Twelfth Night than a boring turkey like Cymbeline or a disingenuous wanna-be hipster like Macbeth.  Unfortunately, this year’s season opener, Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most interestingly potent tragedies, follows in the tradition of disappointments at the theater jutting out onto the lake, with a production that is not just soporific, but also befuddling and, frankly, quite lazily staged.  Maybe I should get a clue from Kanye’s tips on how he laid off the cognac.

Richard III, master manipulator, throne usurper, child murderer, wife grabber, is one of the most fascinating characters, male or female, in the Shakespearean canon.  He is a psychological hot mess, with an insatiable appetite for power grabbing and a lack of moral scruples.  He is physically deformed which contributes to his massive insecurity and sometimes irrational behavior. He is shocking and infuriating, but also funny and riveting.  Or he can be.  Richard III is played by Washington DC-based actor Wallace Acton in a performance that is technically proficient but emotionally distancing.  I laughed at his mugging, his stylized posturing, and his bon mot throwing, but I never shuddered at his deceit and bloodthirstiness.  I didn’t see him as menacing, even as he was sending the princes to the tower or ordering the execution of his brother, Clarence.  I think part of the reason is that Acton seems to be performing soliloquies instead of giving a complete, consistent performance that follows an arc.  I think the other reason is despite some entertaining scene-stealing, it’s not a larger-than-life-and-proscenium-arc performance, which you need Richard to be in order for you to fixate on him amidst all the crazy stage business involving murders, ghosts, and prophecies. 

My main beef though with this production, once again, are the directorial choices that Chicago Shakes Artistic Director Barbara Gaines makes.  I don’t think there is a sense of anchoring place and period in this production.  The show starts with loud, hip, rock music, but this isn’t really consistently used throughout the play, and the music only blares once again during the climactic sword fight between Richard and Richmond near the end of the play. So what I initially though was going to be a punk rock Richard quickly fizzled.  It’s probably better that the music scoring isn’t used throughout since it feels anachronistic beside the costumes, which, although employing a vivid color palette and crafted beautifully, still come off as strongly Elizabethan.  Unfortunately, the very minimal (minimalist?) set design elements (Philippe Starck ghost chairs, a metallic riser, floor-length mirrors) don’t clear things up.  I’m also confused by the inconsistency in the performance styles that Gaines allows her actors to adopt.  Acton, the excellent Wendy Robie as Queen Elizabeth, Jennifer Harmon as Queen Margaret, among others, with their exaggerated movements, precise diction, and stentorian “Shakespearian” delivery seems to be at a Stratford-upon-Avon performance, while many other members of the company (the usually credible Marc Grapey and Dan Kenney, for example), with their naturalistic movements, conversational speaking styles, and Midwestern drawls seem to be at a, uhmm, Kansas City smokehouse rib joint.  It’s very distracting.  Most of the staging is unimaginative, with the actors clustered in a certain section of the stage, or planted firmly stage center (conjuring up migraine-inducing memories of Cymbeline from a couple of years back).  The blocking comes off pretty lazy in my opinion.  For a show that has characters turning into corpses at the drop of a hat, the pacing is very slow. And then when you’re on your third catnap, you’re jarred awake by a headscratching-beyond-belief scene straight out of a vampire B-movie or Night of the Living Dead:  all of Richard’s murder victims rise out of the floor in a metal box, amidst a sea of fog, with heavy Kabuki make-up and eyeliner, hands folded in an “X” across their chests, to lash out at Richard in a dream.  Seriously?

Finally, with twenty minutes to go in what has been an undistinguished production, the young storefront actor Brendan Marshall-Rashid, comes out as Richmond and delivers a soliloquy that is emotionally genuine, quietly powerful, and mellifluously and clearly spoken, and you wonder where the hell has he been during the past two hours and twenty five minutes?  It’s a terrific, but too-short, performance; I, for one, can’t wait to see him perform his career-making Hamlet, wherever it’ll be.  Hopefully, it will be at Chicago Shakes within the next couple of years, because man, the theater really needs a jolt in the arm to justify those high ticket prices.  Those ticket prices (and the ancillary costs of Navy Pier parking, pre-theater dinner, etc.) are probably the metaphorical jet propulsion engine that sent 75% of the audience into a flabbergasting, undeserved standing ovation at the end of the show.  It was quite a dismaying sight.

Richard III is at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., until November 22.

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2 Responses to “Fall Of My Discontent”

  1. fiftyfoot Says:

    I’m pleased to finally find a review of this production that confirms my sense of disappointment CST.

    I would disagree with you on one point: the loud rock score was anything but hip. I wanted to ask Gaines: “why heavy metal?” “Any particular band?” “Did you even know it was metal?” Gratuitous and lazy.

    Acton was clearly allowed to just go do his thing, which was an extended impression of Sideshow Bob as Richard III. The character is vile, but he must also be charismatic. Acton appeared to only be able to nail the vile part. I also had difficulty hearing some of his lines, as he turned to one side or the other of the half-round. It was just a very strange performance.

    And also agreed, would like to see more of Marshall-Rashid.

  2. francis Says:

    Thanks for the comments!

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