Kevin Theis as Richard III

Hot August night, with the leaves hanging down and the grass on the ground smelling sweet …

Neil Diamond
Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show

Shakespeare in the park is as pleasant a way to while away a hot August night as you’ll find, especially this summer. If you’re looking for a silver lining in the Drought of 2012, it’s right here: zero mosquitos and almost no chance of being rained out.

And it was already cooling down last Thursday night as we settled in, front and center, for Festival Theatre’s production of Richard III. With plenty of lawn space available, attending a play in Austin Gardens is like having your own private showing. Because we were sitting close to the action, the flight pattern overhead was much less intrusive and no ambulances came screaming past on their way to Holley Court Terrace, we could hear … every … word. What a difference that makes.

The stage is tucked into an alcove of trees, offering a lovely forested backdrop, and we noshed on Rainier cherries, New Haven peaches and California grapes, while basking in the reflected glory of a full moon rising behind us, adding its gossamer glow to our time-travel setting.

In spite of all that, my expectations were low. Festival’s productions are consistently good, but rarely great. They do a lot with a little, as compared with the well-appointed Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which does a lot with a lot.

As it happens, one of the last CST productions I saw down at Navy Pier was Richard III, and it left me cold. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see another version.

Furthermore, I have complaints about Shakespearean productions in general. The actors tend to sound alike, delivering their lines as they seem to think Shakespearean characters are supposed to sound, instead of creating individualized characters. They also rush through those lines as if they don’t trust audiences in an ADHD culture to stay otherwise engaged — or even awake.

Which turns into self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Elizabethan English sounds foreign to the modern ear and because the Bard’s language is so dense and rich, speeding up the delivery actually prevents the audience from adjusting, attuning and, therefore, engaging. You get the gist of the story, but you can’t fully appreciate the verbal gymnastics and pyrotechnics. Since most attendees probably have never read these plays — or haven’t read them since high school or college — the effect is that it keeps the audience at arm’s length.

Fortunately, director Belinda Bremner has a clue and actor Kevin Theis has a gift. And because Richard III is, in many respects, a one-man show, that was all we needed for an extraordinary evening. I have never “heard,” or been more involved in, a Shakespearean production like I was with this one, which enables me to say something I never thought I would ever write: This performance of Richard III is better than Chicago Shakespeare’s.

Theis is electric. I’ve always admired his acting, but here he rises to another level altogether. Afterward, he said, “I’ve been waiting a long time to play this role.” It was worth the wait.

He specializes in playing characters with a pronounced dark side, and there is no character in the entire Shakespearean canon whose dark side is quite so pronounced. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is as honest as he is ruthless, an unapologetic villain, who quickly co-opts the audience by taking them into his confidence. It’s impossible not to feel something resembling intimacy with this murderous reprobate, even though you never root for him and know he will meet a pre-destined and well-deserved come-downance.

As Richard’s diabolical scheme unfolds, Shakespeare also indicts the corrupt, convoluted system of royal succession that he and his victims are caught in, characterized by blinding ambition, marriages of political convenience, devious deceptions and Machiavellian maneuvering. We should devoutly wish Richard’s denouement but why bother when the other characters are so thoroughly compromised? They’re just a lot more polite and “civilized” about it.

So we go along for Richard’s murderous ride, confident that justice of a sort will be served. We can’t even work up much enthusiasm for his eventual conqueror, Richmond, who is merely “pre-tainted” by the intrigue this system will force him to live by.

Bremner’s clever staging underscores all this as Richard and Richmond deliver their obligatory, pre-battle, inspirational sermons from opposite ends of the stage parapet. Eventually they reverse places and address their troops, massed and thoroughly intermingled below.

The battle, mercifully, is short. Stage combat, no matter how well choreographed (as this one is), always looks, well, staged. Swordfights can only be rendered thrilling on film, with plenty of fancy editing. The best strategy on stage is to be brief (as this one was).

In our world, villains are carefully disguised, camouflaged, coiffed, airbrushed, test-marketed and meticulously managed, so Richard III comes off as refreshingly honest. And Kevin Theis brings this fascinating character fully alive.

Theater-lovers have an unusual opportunity here: A rainless, bugless summer; a phenomenal performance by a local actor in a lovely venue; and three more weekends (Thursdays through Sundays) in which to enjoy it.

Now is the winter of your disengagement made glorious summer by this Duke of Gloucester.

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