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Oak Park Festival Theatre's absorbing new outdoor production of Shakespeare's Richard III is lucid, lively and rapid-paced. There's humor and horror, thrilling swordplay, and vivid performances.
Kevin Theis gives a mesmerizing, nuanced performance in the challenging title role — the hunchback who would be king. Richard is a bitter man, poisoned with self-loathing and an icy hatred for the world. Though misshapen, his physical impairments do not impede his quest for power. He murders friends and family, women and children, to get what he wants.
Yet for all his dark malice, he's also a self-mocking clown. Theis makes him strangely appealing, almost likable. He invites us to join him as he manipulates, marries and murders his way to the top.
As Richard lopes about, he pulls us into his confidence. He's essentially our narrator as well as the anti-hero. From his opening monologue, he announces his envy, his rage, and his ambitions.
"Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer …," he declares. His treachery begins at once, with the body count rising rapidly.
At least nine times he talks directly to the audience, which humanizes his character while establishing a winking complicity with us.
But Richard never seems a growling, demonic psycho. This "poisonous, bunch-backed toad" never camps it up for easy cartoon laughs. He moves with extreme purpose even though he's stooped over. Richard's a ferocious, power-hungry manipulator, but he's often charming and laidback.
We jump into the midst of an intriguing but complex period of English history. There's a lot of back story. In Shakespeare's time, of course, the relationships and politics were familiar. Elizabethan audiences would have known that Richard's brief reign and defeat at the Battle of Bosworth ended the 30-year-long Wars of the Roses.
A key attribute of this fine production is that director Belinda Bremner briskly stages the play for maximum fluidity and accessibility. We can grasp who's who and what they mean to the crown as the plot's thrilling momentum immediately kicks in.
Richard III is an early play by Shakespeare and, perhaps, bears the earmarks of a fledgling playwright. It's one of the Bard's longest, most sprawling works and on the page it's often talky and repetitive. But this version has been tightly pruned and focused. The performance clocks in at 2½ hours with one 15-minute intermission.
This play showcases some of Shakespeare's strongest roles for women.
Carin Silkaitis is impressive as furious, banished ex-Queen Margaret, a curse-spewing mistress of the occult and widow of Henry VI.
Fuming Elizabeth, played by Sara Nichols, is Richard's sister-in-law. He tries to persuade her to give him her daughter in marriage.
Richard's cold-blooded seduction of the grieving Lady Anne (Jhenai Mootz), after killing her husband and father-in-law, is especially chilling. She knows well that Richard has just slain her spouse.
Richard's mother, the Duchess of York (Barbara Figgins), treats her own son with aristocratic distaste.
Dave Skvarla plays suave but doomed Duke of Buckingham, Richard's right-hand man and expediter, who is ultimately betrayed by the newly crowned yet paranoid king.
In a reverse spin on Shakespeare's practice of casting boys in the female roles, here the doomed juvenile princes, Richard's young nephews, are played by two females, the lead actor's daughters, Gwendolyn and Miranda Theis. Watching this trio performing together provides an extra thrill when you know they're a dad-and-daughters combo.
Richard's challenger, Richmond, is played by Drew Johnson. Ted Hoerl is the Duke of Clarence, Richard's trusting brother and an early stepping-stone to the throne. Shannon Parr is Edward, Mark Richard is Hastings, Will Crouse is Catesby, Chris Ricket is Brackenbury, and Joe Bianco is Rovers.
There are very sharp ensemble performances, with actors playing multiple roles, all completely in sync.
The fierce final battle is slickly choreographed by Geoff Coates and Charlie Cascino.
"A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" Richard famously shrieks at the last.
Mac Vaughey's atmospheric lighting provides an expressionist sheen for many episodes. The flexible set design by Aimee Hanyzewski is enhanced by the natural backdrop of Austin Gardens. I liked the large, knotted maze on the second level, which resembles a spider's web. The handsome, detailed costumes are designed by Emily McConnell. The evocative music, part of Joe Fosco's sound design, is especially powerful as it punctuates and blends key scenes.
Watching this vivid drama, which focuses on power wielded without conscience, one cannot help thinking of today's politicians, especially when Richard worries about how to "seem a saint where I must play the devil."