‘Richard III’ looses a venomous schemer on summer stage of American Players Theatre
By Lawrence B. Johnson
SPRING GREEN, WIS. – All that’s lacking to make a snake of James Ridge’s Richard III, in his coiled and hissing performance as Shakespeare’s ultimate anti-hero with American Players Theatre here, is fangs.
On his calculated, slithering and venomous plunge to snare the throne of England, this Richard is a viper that strikes fear in the hearts of his prey. But locked in the charm of his gaze, and ever underestimating his resolve and his malice, they stand frozen to be plucked off one by one, even to the last and least likely to perish.
The lean efficiency, indeed the elemental quality of James Ridge’s Richard seems to mirror the stark stage and natural backdrop of APT’s open-air venue in this hilly, glorious summer setting a three-and-a-half-hour drive north of Chicago. With a distinctly Shakespearean slant, APT has been producing plays for 33 years, its season extending from late June to October. Many in the acting company ply their craft in Chicago during the regular season.
APT’s “Richard III,” directed by James DeVita with an easy fluidity and clarity that gives wings to time, speaks well of the company’s serious purpose and high theatrical standards. It’s also a potent account of this history play-cum-tragedy. Like Macbeth, the murderous Richard, Duke of Gloucester, finds himself so steeped in blood that even when he has gained the prize, guilt and fear rob him of its rewards. In the end the scythe of retribution cuts him down as well.
Richard can be portrayed as a politician and schemer so glib that even the audience finds itself rooting for this poor, misshapen, friendless perversion of man and nature. But James Ridge’s ferocious campaigner mesmerizes us by the sheer audacity of his actions. And yet even as he is rapacious, he also quickly displays the seducer’s mettle.
In no small part, the fascination of “Richard III” lies in the lopsided colloquies between the relentless plotter, hell bent on succeeding his sickly brother Edward IV, and those who either stand in his way or can be of momentary use to him.
Perhaps most amazing among these encounters, and stunningly effective here, is Richard’s brazen proposal to the distraught Lady Anne — widow of one of his victims, daughter-in-law of another — with nothing less than a proposal of marriage, even as she laments over the body of her slain husband. Melissa Graves plays Anne with an incredulity that surely matches the viewer’s, though her indignation melts before Richard’s hot entreaties.
In one of Shakespeare’s most delicious conceits, the roguish Richard tells Anne: Yes, yes, I killed your father-in-law, but only to send him to a better place. And, well, yes, I did murder your husband, but only that you might be better married – to me. It’s black comedy bordering on farce, and Ridge brings it off with cavalier conviction.
While “Richard III” is very much the would-be king’s play, he is nonetheless surrounded by intriguing pawns, vivid characters for the most part brought to credible life under director DeVita’s carefully measuring hand.
The finest among these is Tracy Michelle Arnold’s weathered and bitter Queen Margaret, widow of Henry VI – in whose murder Richard has played a part. Arnold’s Margaret is nothing short of magisterial. The elaborate curse she brings down on Richard and his sycophants resonates through every scene thereafter. David Daniel provides another dramatic anchor as the Duke of Buckingham, who becomes Richard’s chief agent and expediter only to be betrayed by the newly crowned but deeply paranoid king.
Takeshi Kata’s spare set design – an empty stage except for the occasional chair – accentuates both the severity of APT’s arena and the splendor of Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes. How wonderfully ironic is Richard III’s posh raiment as bundling for the sorry, fretful wretch he has become.
The battle scene that ends Richard’s brief – historically, two-year – reign is a worthy counterpart to the torment within him. Exposed on fateful Bosworth Field, Ridge’s pestilent monarch would need more than a horse to pull his kingship from the bloody mire.
- Richard’s opening soliloquy explained: Take an interactive lesson with Sir Ian McKellen, line for line
- Did the real Richard III murder the rightful heirs to the throne?: View the mock trial on YouTube here and here.
- Andrew Wise first published Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in London in 1597: See the text here
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at AmericanPlayers.org