Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Gift Theatre at the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $30-$40. Runs through: May 1
To damn with faint praise, this Richard III kept me alert and entertained, but I think it's more the play itselfand the wily, demented personality of the title characterthan the production. Yes, it's special and vivid when Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard rises from his real-life wheelchair to slowly stride back-and-forth across the stage, assisted by state-of-the-art robotics strapped to his legs and torso ( courtesy of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago ). It recalls how paralyzed Franklin Roosevelt mastered an arduous pseudo-walk, knowing he had to stand tall, quite literally, if he hoped to become President. Thornton's stunning walk shows Richard embracing the same idea: to rule a nation one must overcome physical weakness in a highly-visible way. It's striking, too, that Thornton's wheelchair represents humpback Richard's twisted, scoliotic spine.
Nonetheless, this production is uneven. Several actors deliver Shakespeare with power and clarity, notably Jenny Avery ( as Elizabeth ), Keith Neagle ( Buckingham ) and Shanesia Davis ( as the prophetic harridan, Queen Margaret ); but some supporting players sound like actors-in-training struggling with classical texts. Even Thornton seems uneven, often simply too conversational in this intimate 90-seat arena staging. He easily conveys Richard's cunning, his self-awareness and mocking duplicitysometimes ironically comicbut when he needs to express a mood other than anger ( such as majesty or desperation as his world implodes ) he's lacking.
Sully Ratke's timeless costumes are neither period-accurate ( 1480s ) nor modern, which is just finebut they are odd, nonetheless. All are in shades of gray, everyone is bare-armed and barefoot except Richard, and everyone sports dangling pearl earrings. Obviously, there is a concept here worked out by Ratke and director Jessica Thebus, but I can't perceive what it is. The text is significantly cut ( lots of expository dialogue is axed ) and the play opens with a scene near the end, with Richard on the eve of the battle in which he will die. The play is seen, then, as Richard's flashbacks as he replays his career in his mind, stopping and resuming the action at will. I understand that much, but I don't see that it reveals anything new about the play or the character of Richard. The trimmed text, however, allows for a fast-paced and vigorous production, which is a saving grace.
JR Lederle's lighting adds quality to the production, focusing audience attention and sometimes bathing Richard alone in color. It works well with the setting by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod, which surrounds the action ( and audience ) with trees on three sides and heavy curtains on the fourth, and covers the square-ish stage with faded keystone patterns, everything but the curtains in neutral colors. Kevin O'Donnell's music adds power to the show, as his compositions usually do.