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Shakespeare Made Simple 

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RICHARD III

Oak Park Festival Theatre

I hereby disqualify myself from any future attempts to review Shakespeare plays directed by Terry McCabe. No, really. McCabe's unquestionably a decent and talented guy. I've met him--he's nice. I've seen his work on new scripts, like John Logan's Hauptmann--it's good. But his attempts at interpreting the Bard baffle me. I have no idea what he thinks he's doing.

Well, maybe one idea. It's possible that McCabe's drive to direct Shakespeare stems not so much from the plays themselves as from a deep-seated desire to see Tom Mula act in them. A few years ago McCabe directed King Lear at the Body Politic; the production groaned under the weight of a ponderous concept having something to do with the Balkan Wars. At least that's how I remember it. Nothing made sense--until Mula showed up as the Fool. Dressed in a bowler and armed with an umbrella, he was Charlie Chaplin waiting for Godot: an absurd clown, possessed of a vast, knowing, ironic, pathetic yet authentically deep sadness. Mula's Fool constituted the one point of clarity in the show. It was as if McCabe had come up with the whole mess just so Mula could wear that bowler.

Now McCabe's attempted Richard III, Shakespeare's marvelously lurid history play about the deformed 15th-century spin doctor who connived and murdered and seemingly mesmerized his way to the English throne before getting tumbled off it at the battle of Bosworth Field. Again, nothing makes much sense. Again, there's Mula--in the title role this time; done up in a hump, a set of crutches, and one pointy ear. But not even he can provide enough clarity to overcome the chaos around him. Especially not in that outfit. He ends up succumbing to it instead, and it swallows him down.

As in Lear, Mula's character is conceived as a kind of comedian: the one guy at the court of Edward IV capable of seeing how things really work, and of offering sly commentary on what he sees. But where Lear's despairing Fool recoils from his insights, the ambitious hunchback revels in them. And positions himself to make optimum use of them. The future king pinches every political pressure point, even as he's riffing to us from a mental and emotional distance. Mula plays Richard's asides cattily, all but licking his lips as he dishes Edward.

It's a workable approach--especially at the beginning, when Richard's full of plans and arrogance. But--again, like Mula's Fool--it's left to languish amid the worst nonsense and buffoonery. Evidently McCabe's only dramatic idea after casting Mula was to make sure the story would read clearly on the Oak Park Festival Theatre's outdoor stage. So he reduced the entire dramatis personae down to simple black-line cartoons that can be seen in a fog and understood even with a Boeing 747 roaring overhead. A pair of comic murderers are turned into full-out fops who can't negotiate a set of stairs without bumping into each other. The hypocrisy of a reconciliation is signaled with great big winks. Cunning is conflated with faggotry. Goodness is presented as a form of stupidity. And political terror is symbolized in a rather tackily handled motif involving a beheading ax.

Given all this, I probably shouldn't be surprised at McCabe's abject fumbling of one of the most psychologically spectacular scenes in Shakespeare: the one where Richard woos, and wins, the widow of a man he murdered--even as she's taking her husband's casket to be interred. The profound difficulty of the scene is obvious. How does McCabe handle it? I'll tell you: I don't know. All I know is that a good actress like Lisa Dodson goes from spitting invective at Richard to writhing sensually at his touch, as if they'd already become lovers. Neither these extremes nor anything that happens in between them was comprehensible to me. What a waste.

About the only character who comes out well is Richard's coconspirator, Buckingham. Gary Houston's relative calm in the face of all the cartooning around him allows him to make Buckingham a genuinely intelligent villain. He and Mula establish a rapport that more than justifies Richard's expostulation to Buckingham: "My other self, my counsel's consistory, / My oracle, my prophet, my dear cousin!"

Unfortunately, Mula himself doesn't survive. McCabe's got him putting so many arrows and asterisks on his ironies that we start to wonder why nobody onstage is catching on to them. By the time we see Richard at the end, hobbling around a battlefield with the most ridiculous blades on his war crutches, we're utterly beyond sympathy, empathy, horror, or laughter. Richard III is full of a grotesque and savage comedy, but McCabe reduces both the comedy and the tragedy to a diagrammatic silliness. Not even Mula can make that worthwhile.

I feel like a parent breaking the bad news: Kids, your Reader and I are breaking up. This will be my last Reader review, at least for a while. Though I expect to continue writing about Chicago theater, I won't be doing it here. Don't worry--your Reader and I still love each other. It was a great 11 years, and I'll never forget what we had together. But it's time, as they say, to move on. So long for now.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.

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