Playwright: William Shakespeare . At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand. Phone: 312-525-5600; $55-$75 Runs through: Nov. 22
The opening passage of Richard III is one of Shakespeare's most vivid, goosebump-inducing and wickedly funny monologues. Three sentences in, and we know we're face to face with the quintessential sociopath, a fellow as charming as he is deadly. Insisting he is too ugly and misshapen to ever be loved, Richard vows to devote his life to evil. Rather than being crushed by the prospect of going through life deformed and alone, the bunch-backed toad revels in it. He's a merry devil, gleefully promising himself he'll slaughter his way to the English throne. He's got the heart of a reptile and the brain of a genius, in all, one of the most deliciously fascinating villains Shakespeare penned.
So it was with increasing dismay that we listened to Wallace Acton deliver the famed "Now is the winter of our discontent" speech with an off-hand tone more suited for transcribing a computer manual than delivering the thrilling intro to the bloodbath that is Richard III. What was director Barbara Gaines thinking? Who knows?
This is what we do know: She begins by tossing the text aside, opening the production with a fussy, unnecessary prelude wherein the royals pose for a family picture. She then adds a scene that has strumpet Jane Shore prancing about in slut-red, thigh-high stockings, King Edward in hot, frolicksome pursuit. Apparently audiences can't be trusted to come to their own understanding of Richard's opening condemnation of an England full of happy lute playing and lascivious gamboling. Apparently, we need a scantily clad harlot onstage in order to understand the situation. The addition of Mistress Shore shows us two things: a ) Gaines doesn't trust Shakespeare to keep the audience interested on his own and b ) There's gonna be a lot of unnecessary pandering in this Richard III.
And so there is. In the key battlefield scenes, Gaines literally resorts to smoke and mirrorsand copious amounts of bothin a misguided attempt towell, to what, exactly? Create a seasonally appropriate zombie scene?
Equally baffling is the inclusion of generic head-banger rock into the proceedings. We know the crucial Battle of Bosworth is at hand because the sound design starts sounding like a Sons of Osiris cover band. Instead of simply telling the story and giving us a multilayered, monstrously charismatic antihero, Gaines overwhelms the stage with special effects, eye-popping costumes and cinematic lighting. But strip the show of its bells and whistles and million-dollar production values, and you'll find little semblance of a compelling central character. The emperor, or the King, as it were, has no clothes.
Now is, indeed, the winter of our discontentand not in the way Shakespeare intended.