Since Evanston's Muse of Fire Theatre Company will disband in September, after nine summers of performing Shakespeare for free and mostly outdoors, it'd be great to say that they're going out with a bang. But that's not the case. Although it offers stalwart performances, some smart direction by Jemma Alix Levy, and an entertainingly breezy, unapologetic embodiment of the title villain by Jon Beal, this Richard III has its troubles.
Some of which are familiar from previous MOF productions. The company has been criticized in the past for sowing confusion by letting cast members double- and triple-up on roles. Here, with a dozen actors deployed among 30 characters, certain moments aren't just chaotic, they're inadvertently comic—as when we find ourselves watching actor Sonia Goldberg suffer not one but two onstage deaths. Then there's the difficulty posed by orienting the performance area so that the audience has to look west into a late-afternoon sun.
But Levy introduces a whole new problem when she goes beyond casting women in male roles and actually changes the gender of those roles, so that, for instance, the dukes of Clarence and Buckingham become duchesses. This is more than a matter of messing with the text, which happens all the time where Shakespeare is concerned; since Clarence and others were real people, it's arguably a matter of messing with history. A much bigger issue, though, is this: The play features several royal women who are exploited and made bereft of their families by the rapacious Richard. Their combination of political helplessness and spiritual authority makes for potent, culturally resonant drama. If their fellow women are running around behaving like 15th-century men, killing each other off, the helplessness and the authority are called into question, the potency and resonance pale. You have to ask yourself, Why don't the royal ladies just pick up swords and start swinging? No answer is forthcoming. v