Richard III -06/28/1999
By William Shakespeare. Cast includes: Jay Whittaker, John Fischer, David Funai, Michael McAlister, Laura Frances Love, Rebecca MacLean, Hans Fleischmann, David Kepley, Brian J. Gill, Matthew Lane Schwartz, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Lisa Gaye Dixon, Frank Nall, Cheryl Leigh Williams, Wendy Plante, and Barton Lorimor. Director: Patrick O'Gara. Costume Designer: Tona Schenck. Scenic Designer: John Stark. Lighting Designer: Laura Manteuffel. Sound Designer: Colleen Kenny.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
In repertory through July 31. Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theater, Normal. Box office: 309-438-2535.
Shakespeare's "Richard III," a delightfully dark version of England's last Plantagenet king, offers one of the great villains of the stage.
As such, he is an actor's (if not a historian's) delight, as Richard undertakes a series of devious plots and bloody schemes in his ultimately successful attempt to gain the throne of England.
Variously described by other characters as a hedgehog, a bottled spider, a poisonous, bunchbacked toad, and a hellhound, Richard is usually portrayed with a hump and other physical disabilities to indicate (at least to Shakespeare) exterior deformities that mirror his inward evil. His mishapen looks mean, he says, that he "cannot prove a lover," and so he is "determined to prove a villain."
In real life, it is not at all clear that Richard III had a hump or was anymore of a villain than any other 15th century political figure when it came to eliminating rivals, but it is Shakespeare's "bunchbacked toad" who has caught the popular imagination.
Under the direction of Patrick O'Gara, the Illinois Shakespeare Festival "Richard III" looks and acts pretty much by-the-book, meaning it retains the actual historical period in costumes and set pieces, and does not venture far from traditonal views of the characters.
This is not the scuttling spider of Anthony Sher's famous portrayal, not the chilly 1930's military man of Sir Ian McKellan, not even the Uncle Fester/Court Jester done a few years ago by David Troughton for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Instead, Jay Whittaker, who did a more intense turn as Richard last year in "The Falcon's Pitch," creates a malicious imp in thick white greasepaint. He has a bad limp and a problem with his hand, but he manages to caper as well as anyone. This Richard is more of a gremlin than a hellhound. That works to a certain extent, but ultimately, major scenes lack tension and snap.
The moment when Richard pretends to turn down the crown is vivid and sharp, as is the thrust-and-parry scene where he states his intention to pursue his niece as a marriage partner. Others, such as the council meeting and Richard's eve-of-battle nightmare, are less interesting.
Still, the climactic battle scenes are staged brilliantly. Intricately and dangerously choreographed, this is the best stage combat you're likely to see in a good long time.
The interaction of the Royal Women is also impressive. Rebecca MacLean as Elizabeth, queen to the late Edward IV, and especially Cheryl Leigh Williams, as Cecily, Richard's mother, show passion and tragedy as they command the audience's attention.
Other good supporting actors include Matthew Lane Schwartz as the conniving Duke of Buckingham, Thomas Anthony Quinn as stalwart Stanley, and Barton Lorimor as a sympathetic young prisoner.
This is a steady, handsome "Richard III," with some striking moments. If those moments were sustained throughout, and if the central performance were as edgy as the final fight, this might be a “Richard” to write home about.