Acme Arts Society

at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

The set for Acme Arts Society’s production of Shakespeare’s King Richard III is a plain white playing area, bare except for a splotch of dark paint in the middle of the floor and, painted like graffiti on the floor and walls, various lines from the play. Certain words, painted larger than the others, stand out: “hate,” “suspect,” “conscience,” “dreamt,” “disinherited,” “die.”

Like many things in William Bullion’s staging, the words are an intelligent and interesting surface touch; but like the show as whole, they don’t add up to much. As an exercise in rethinking Shakespeare, Bullion’s King Richard III has some individual features that show the director has done his homework; if this were a classroom directing project, he’d get a good grade. But it lacks the coherent vision and disciplined execution needed to qualify it as professional theater of interest to any audience besides the company’s friends and a few Richard III freaks.

The flaws that prevent Bullion’s concept from fulfilling its potential are, ironically, part of the concept. The universe of Bullion’s King Richard III is a shallow, random one, strong on images but mostly devoid of feeling. It’s a hodgepodge of traditional and contemporary speech and clothing styles, physically energetic and fast-paced, but it isn’t going anywhere. It’s our world–specifically, the world of Bullion’s middle-class twentysomething peers, dominated by TV and raucous, dumb music, fairly well educated but valueless, shrewd in most aspects of daily life but utterly gullible when confronted by an attractive, aggressive young comer like Richard Gloucester Plantagenet.

I’m not sure how much of this concept is a motivating inspiration and how much of it is simply Bullion’s solution to the problem of doing Shakespeare with a young, uneven, dramatically callow group of actors. I do know that, by intent or by accident, Bullion uses Shakespeare to reflect his own society far more than he uses his society to freshly illuminate Shakespeare. The production’s subtitle, The Big Dick, seems to promise a raw, bawdy performance that emphasizes the outrageous black comedy inherent in Shakespeare’s story of a sociopathic social climber who rises to the top by blithely knocking off everyone who stands in his way. But the show’s three hours move along blandly and monotonously, without much sexuality, only a few laughs, and no passion to rouse our belief in or horror at the story.

On the other hand, there are a number of little gimmicks that, for the record at least, bear mentioning. Allison Froyd’s costumes mix medieval and modern garb with an eye for just the kind of ugliness that adolescents love to affect when they go out nightclubbing–which is just how the characters behave here. Nothing’s for real, nothing’s serious. Dead people suddenly awaken to hand props to fellow actors; Richard mocks his hunched back by starting off his “winter of our discontent” speech in a parody of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot; the assassins Richard employs to murder his cousin Clarence are a pair of Chaplinesque clowns; a messenger pulls a pizza order out of his tunic instead of a royal commission; a courtier breaks from Shakespeare to say, “OK, Johnny, show us what they’ve won,” before a burst of automatic-weapons fire kills a group of people (who then reappear a scene or two later). None of this adds up to any coherent statement other than “just kidding, folks.” The realest moment in the show, ironically, is the most overtly artificial: an expository scene between three citizens is shown on a video monitor, played as a man-on-the-street spot conducted by an affectedly conversational TV interviewer. “But leave it all to God,” he says in that pompous “And-that’s-the-way-it-is” tone of voice.

Richard himself, as played by Patrick Murphy, is a jumpy, athletic kid prone to punky posing; his fascism, like most everything in the production, is of the make-believe variety. His opponent and successor the Earl of Richmond–played by Gregory Grene, the only conventionally classical-looking actor in the company–is also a poseur, who affects Leslie Howard mannerisms to deliver a victor’s virtuous verse. If both good and evil are banal, as they are here, one is struck by the banality rather than by the good or the evil, as Shakespeare’s great study of primal power struggles is reduced to a study in soulless superficiality.