Richard III; Twelfth Night | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Richard III; Twelfth Night


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Footsteps Theatre Company


Bugeater Theatre

at the Second Unitarian Church

In these egalitarian times, there is no reason to assume that a woman playing Richard III would rely any less than a man on the usual physical gimmicks. But since this is Footsteps Theatre's production of Shakespeare's play, Richard III is not the usual bundle of hobbles, hisses, tics, and twitches that so often constitutes the American actor's take on the Black Prince. Instead Jean Adamak plays this antihero as an exuberant juvenile delinquent who revels in his power and cleverness with an almost charming amorality.

This, the fourth of Footsteps' unigender productions (which is also being performed at the Cultural Center on April 22 and 24 as part of "The Lancaster Cycle") puts psychology before biology: the all-female cast make no attempt to reproduce the physical traits of their characters--Richard's deformities are limited to an almost unnoticeable limp. In this way they're freed to consider the meaning of Shakespeare's narrative without the distractions of a mundane universe. Under this interpretation, Richard's envy and disapproval of his brothers are what spur him on to deadly mischief--for in a world as riddled with violence and upheaval as England during the Wars of the Roses, bloody deeds may be motivated by minor-league malevolence. But even before the ghosts of his victims visit him to prophesy his death, this Richard has his moments of misgiving and regret--as in the rarely performed act four scene (included here) in which his own mother renounces him. Full of himself he may be, but what man could take a curse like this lightly?

Adamak's Richard masks a ruthless impatience with a Tom Sawyer innocent face and a whining obsequiousness worthy of a 15th-century Eddie Haskell. Dawn Alden is Buckingham, the gullible sidekick who misjudges the extent of Richard's self-love. As Elizabeth, who watches helplessly as her family fall prey to Richard, Hileree Kirsch adopts a prim housewifely manner that contrasts well with Sandy Borglum's unrestrained passion as the mad Margaret, who rolls about on the floor like a tigress in a field of catnip. Though the only weapons we see in this production have been fashioned from the white veils that are the chief costuming component, the final showdown between Richard and Richmond (choreographed by Alden) is still as thrilling a battle as we have come to expect. Other surprises provided by director Alison C. Vesely are the novel treatment of Clarence's assassination, in which the meek but resourceful prisoner (played by the remarkable Robin Chaplik) nearly succeeds in dissuading his executioners from their task, and the comical grouping of the London citizens in act three: they resemble a cluster of bowling pins waiting to be overturned.

Footsteps Theatre has made all-female Shakespeare seem so easy that several other companies have experimented with cross-gender casting. But their efforts mostly serve to demonstrate how difficult pulling it off actually is. The latest of these is Bugeater Theatre's Twelfth Night: not only are all the roles played by women, but all 14 of them are played by 6 women.

This is less silly in the execution than it is in theory, to the credit of director-adapter Jim Johnson. And Gilmary Doyle as both Viola and Sebastian and Heidi Ammon as Malvolio and assorted supernumeraries go beyond the quick-change gimmick to create distinct, if rudimentary, characters. On the other hand, the elfin Karen Foley plays Feste with a nervous quiver that makes the jester appear rather tentative--something no professional fool can afford to be. And though Carolyn Slemp is adequate as the jug-headed Sir Andrew Aguecheek, she makes the proper Lady Olivia just as brainless. The sadly gone to seed space at the Second Unitarian Church forces actors to make too many of their speeches en route to the rear of the auditorium, out of audience earshot. But despite the flaws of this show, the Bugeaters are to be commended for the risks they take.

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