Somehow, through all of my years as a play-goer, an English teacher, and a theatre critic, I had managed to miss out on seeing Shakespeare’s greatest villain, Richard III, on stage until seeing the extremely impressive Promethean Theatre production on Friday night. Unfortunately, on this night (a pleasant Friday in May at the start of Memorial Day weekend), there were literally more members of the cast than members of the audience. Now, I realize that this play has a large cast (Promethean’s production has fifteen members, most of whom were doubling or tripling roles), but come on! The empty seats—empty nice, new, comfy seats, I might add: my notoriously picky husband had no complaints at all during or after the two-and-a-half hour performance—those empty seats surrounding the thrust stage at Howard Street’s cozy Factory Theatre must have been hard to take, but those present were treated to a stellar show.
For the second time in the last several months (after a turn as JFK in CityLit’s excellent Thirteen Days), actress Cameron Feagin has taken on an iconic male role and absolutely made it her own. Richard is a difficult, complex role, a self-conscious villain who doesn’t even try to explain away his evil deeds but rather relishes them. From the first scenes, we know that he is despicable: he proclaims that he has already killed two members of the royal family and begins his grand plan to kill more of them and grab the crown for his own. Further, he makes it clear that he will woo and marry Lady Anne (played by Simmery Branch), who is the widow of one of his victims and knows he is the killer. (“Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?” he asks, before his immense hubris amends it: “Was ever a woman in this humor won?”)
Feagin, from the outset, has a field day with this unapologetic murderer. You can practically see the machinations that, in a single scene, reverse Anne’s hatred in order to make her see the potential of a union with him. And Feagin definitely lets you see the sheer glee with which he manages this. Her Richard doesn’t care at all if the odds are long that his plan ultimately will work—probably doesn’t care that he is more likely to be killed than to be crowned—but he’s having so much fun with everything!
Along the way lie his multitudinous betrayals as he kills his brother, his nephews, his new wife (yeah, Anne doesn’t make it all that far), and so many other lords that, when the end comes and the Tudors take the throne, they are pretty much unopposed. Only a few stalwarts, most of whom don’t want to be there, support Richard to the end; he’s had most of the rest executed.
Though there is reason to believe that the victorious Tudors may have invented a lot of his darker elements, Shakespeare’s Richard is definitely not a nice guy.
Yet, as horrendous as his actions are, Feagin is so engaging that you can understand his ability to make others believe and support him despite all of the clear evidence (much of it from his own mouth) that tells them not to. It is in another play (Hamlet to be exact) that we learn that a man “may smile and smile and be a villain,” and Richard is one such man. He has much hatred for everyone, based partly on their attitude toward his deformed and twisted body, though director Steve Scott opts to do without the traditional hunched back and allows Feagin to suggest the deformities instead. Her costume, designed by Rachel Lambert, helps by giving her a slightly unnatural aspect, but it’s Feagin—with just a couple of small affectations—who makes Richard’s outside as twisted as his inside.
Feagin and Richard are certainly the absolute focus of this play. (In fact, it is very rare that the character isn’t onstage.) But she has plenty of help here. Andres Coronado’s angry, prophetic Queen Margaret utterly dominates every scene in which she appears; Coronado’s cross-gender performance overshadows all of the other characters, even though they too are dynamite. (He is not onstage at the same time as Feagin, or he might have given her a run for her ducats.) Heather Kae Smith’s Queen Elizabeth, the widow of the slain Edward IV and mother of the two “princes in the tower,” remains determinedly stoic and royal in her demeanor, letting her pain show only briefly despite all of the horrors in the world descending upon her. Destin Lorder Teamer, who briefly plays one of the aforementioned princes, shines as Richmond, who returns from self-exile in France to find vengeance for all those whom Richard has slain and eventually marries Elizabeth’s daughter, uniting the Lancasters and the Yorks and ending the Wars of the Roses forever while, not for nothing, starting the Tudor Dynasty. Meanwhile, Kevin Sheehan as Hastings, Gunner Bradley as Catesby, and Mark West as Buckingham (along with many others) find themselves caught up in Richard’s dark plans.
With this many people playing even more characters, even Shakespeare’s second-longest play is not necessarily enough to help the audience to keep everyone straight. At intermission, I heard another audience member expressing confusion about which characters were Yorks, which were Lancasters, and which were unaffiliated. I’m not sure what Scott and Lambert could have done to help this confusion—other than have everyone wear a white or red rose, which would work but be overly blunt—but I can’t disagree. Especially before the many murders thin the crowd, it is hard to know who is on whose side. But there may be method even in that madness, as we find ourselves at times, much like Richard, not really worrying about whom he kills. None of them, after all, deserve it.
Scott’s director’s note makes a point of observing that, as was true in Shakespeare’s day, we are still fascinated by demagogues today…whether their names are Hitler, Putin, or Trump. Like Richard, the unrepentant villain is a character we can’t look away from. Maybe it’s due to the fact that so much evil in one man is, thankfully, rare. Maybe it’s because we can all think of easy examples. Whatever the reason, though, Richard III feels as clearly important today as it was in the 16th Century, when the actual events that inspired it were not yet even a century old.
Richard III plays until June 25 at the Factory Theatre, 1623 W. Howard St…hopefully to crowds larger than its most deserving cast. Tickets are available from Promethean Theatre.