Original Music by Jonathan Guillen
Choral Arrangements and Direction by Nicholas Tonozzi
Produced by Oracle Productions
Playing at DCASE Storefront Theater, Chicago
Richard as Intriguing as Ever, With a Twist
Whenever you see Jonathan Guillen and Nicholas Tonozzi credited for the music in an Oracle show, you know it’s going to be a good night. In No Beast So Fierce, the new adaptation of Richard III by Oracle artistic director Max Truax, the would-be king’s iconic opening monologue has been transformed into England’s national anthem under the York regime. We see a brief dumb show, depicting the deposition of Henry VI, and then, King Edward (John Arthur Lewis) takes the throne in a nineteenth-century style set designed by Joanna Iwanicka that looks like the Winter Palace after the Russian Revolution. But in this version, Richard suffers from a deformity which, in the late nineteenth century, was considered by “scientific” medical authorities far more morally and spiritually debilitating than any hunchback. She is a woman.
Truax’s Richard is Katherine Keberlein. Gaunt and rigid, this Duchess of Gloucester by marriage has no sense of humor, making her and the whole atmosphere more like Macbeth. Truax even works in some of Lady Macbeth’s lines, although he has cut Shakespeare’s second longest play down to ninety minutes. Changing Richard’s sex also provided an opportunity to reimagine some relationships; besides that she is the wife of Clarence (Colin Morgan) in this version, which makes her even more of an imposer on the royal family and on more equal footing with the Woodvilles, she also seduces the nobleman Buckingham with the speech Richard normally delivers to Anne Neville (Buckingham is played by Mickey O’Sullivan, but Cody Proctor stepped in at the performance I saw). Buckingham must be aware that a woman who is in the process of murdering her husband to advance herself should not be trusted, but his own ambition gets the better of him. There is another key difference: this Richard murders all her victims personally.
Oracle has partnered for this production with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, granting them a far larger venue than their home in Lakeview. This frees up Truax to focus on visual elements, such as color and movement. Joan Pritchard has clad all the characters in black, with the occasional bright red shining through. The stage is filled with courtiers, like Lord Rivers (Mike Steele), Lord Hastings (Jeremy Trager), and the Mayor (Brian J. Hurst), whose duplicity is emphasized by the exaggerated way in which they go through the expected motions of courtly etiquette, over and over again, for the sake of being seen by their peers. At one point during the power struggle, Lord Rivers uses his sister, Queen Elizabeth Woodville (Erica Bittner), as a puppet, and with Rachel K. Levy’s lighting design providing so many shadows for spies to hide in, the world of this play is a devious one, indeed. Jeremy Clark’s projections include a jockey on a speeding horse, a reference to both Richard’s famous call for aid and the horserace of politics, as well as vaguer, hazier images suggesting civil unrest and violence. While the play is a chamber piece instead of a historical epic, high stakes are clearly established.
All the actors are well-suited for this imaginative style, as is Shakespeare’s language. The new context makes each line a fresh discovery, and demonstrates how even relatively still early in his career, Shakespeare was becoming a masterful poet. The music helps a lot with that; Clarence’s speech about the bottom of the ocean is more mystical than ever, and Richard’s declarations and machinations are sheer cruelty. Her downfall is that Prince Edward (also Morgan, who interestingly plays all the sympathetic male characters) truly does come across as innocent of any bloodthirsty intentions of his own, but wise enough to perceive her plans. His murder is a stoop too low even for this den of vipers, and finally unites the noblemen in genuine moral loathing against Richard. It is in this desperate circumstance that Richard appeals to Elizabeth, by for the first time, invoking female solidarity. Instead of “your daughter,” Richard speaks of “our daughters,” and the following exchange, in which Elizabeth seems to be tempted for a moment, becomes the most interesting scene in the play, and the one this whole process seemed to be leading up to.
I think fans of Richard III will be fascinated by Truax’s adaptation. The question with these sorts of projects is always whether keeping longtime Shakespeare fans interested can be balanced with making the play accessible to newcomers. Certainly, it helps to already know that Rivers is a Woodville and that Elizabeth’s daughter in real life married Henry Tudor, making them a rare case of mother and daughter who were queens consort of the same country. Truax eliminated two other female characters from the text: Richard’s disapproving mother, and Margaret of Anjou, the widow of the first king Richard deposed, and the acting ruler of England, due to her husband’s chronic depression. That decision simplifies the battle of the sexes, for better or worse. But the story we are presented with is told very well, and retains in altered form the poetic quality of the language and complexity of Richard’s psychology that made the original a classic. As always, Oracle shows are free. For very little risk, prospective audience members stand to gain a uniquely stimulating theatrical experience.
For more information, see No Beast So Fierce’s Page on Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at DCASE Storefront Theater, 66 E Randolph St, Chicago. Tickets are free; to order, visit publicaccesstheatre.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Running time is ninety minutes with no intermission.