Renegade Theatre Company

at Footsteps Theatre

Director Mark Liermann maintains that Shakespeare “should start down in the dirt, with blood and guts, not . . . up on a shelf.” Renegade Theatre Company’s heavy-metal Richard III gets down and dirty, all right, leaving barely a trace of Richard’s customary cerebrality.

This adaptation by Liermann and Brad Farwell transposes the volatile political situation of late-15th-century England to the nihilistic world of modern urban gangs. The change makes for some striking visual images: the clairvoyant Queen Margaret is portrayed as a raving bag lady, and Lady Anne as a virgin/whore, with black lace underwear peeking from under her modest gown. In a brief but timely scene the two child princes mimic the signals and handshakes of their seniors, unaware that they will soon die at the hands of those they admire. Richard wears numerous battle scars on his face (a form of martial decoration none of his comrades share, oddly enough) and a surgical splint on one of his legs that also serves as a scabbard.

The anachronistic choice of a sword as Richard’s weapon is only one of the points at which Liermann’s analogy breaks down. Another is the complacency with which so many of Richard’s henchmen, in the midst of an allegedly anarchic milieu, resign themselves to their executions. And what are we to make of the vanquisher, Richmond, dressed in dazzling white and invoking God with the fervor of a crusader to the holy land–is he a social worker, a ghetto priest, or simply a cleaner, comelier rival gang leader?

Farwell’s Richard has been handicapped by the director’s decision to emphasize emotion over intellect. A “fighting machine”–as Richard is described in a program note–with a plan might have been interesting, but mindless evil quickly grows boring. There is no denying the craft of Farwell’s interpretation, but the way he delivers most of his lines in a hollow whisper, punctuated by occasional explosions of laughter, also grows repetitive. More compelling is Nelson Russo’s thoughtful Buckingham: Russo’s formidable size and parade-ground voice are notable in a production whose chief motif seems to be plenty of noise, and the louder the better.

The fourth-act confrontation scene, in which the queen mother defies Richard’s wish to marry her daughter, loses virtually all of its strength because Jennifer Pompa plays it in an unvarying state of hysterics. Jonathon Burke’s Clarence all but whimpers like a child during his incarceration scene (since his jailer is female in this production, he even cradles his head in her lap). And Lady Anne’s motives in allowing herself to be seduced by the repugnant Richard at her husband’s funeral are made no clearer by Kris Buckley’s portrayal of the young widow as a sullen adolescent, nor by Liermann’s breaking their pivotal scene into three parts culminating in Richard’s wedding-night rape of his new bride. Given the uniform ages and quasi-skinhead garb of the cast, one sometimes has trouble distinguishing them in their multiple roles; but memorable moments are achieved by Karl Pothoff as the laconic Earl of Derby, Scot Morton as the virtuous Richmond, and JoAnn Oliver and Scott Turney as a moose-and-squirrel team of assassins.

With its cavernous set, designed by Liermann and Phil Pierson, decorated with steel cobwebs, Steven Elliason’s complex fight choreography, J.R. Lederle’s gloomy lighting (the murkiest since Shakespeare Rep’s Macbeth last year), and Glenn Swan’s growling incidental music, Renegade’s Richard is a flawed but highly original experiment.


Mary-Arrchie Theatre

The time is the 1930s and the place is Chicago, where a small-time gangster named Arturo Ui vows he will gain the respect of the city. He acquires control of the wholesale grocery business by blackmailing the owners, forcing the vendors to pay him protection money, then blaming the vandalism of his own thugs on the drivers of the delivery trucks. As Ui’s hubris grows, so does his reign of terror. When a powerful import-export mogul in Cicero offers to do business with Ui if he will dismiss Roma, his second-in-command, Ui does so without hesitation, gunning down his comrade in a garage. The subsequent murder of Cicero’s newspaper editor and subjugation of his widow place that town wholly in the hands of the ruthless Ui. It’s not over yet, however–“They’re screaming for protection everywhere!” Ui insists. “Chicago today! The world tomorrow!”

Bertolt Brecht has sprinkled The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with speeches from Macbeth–there’s even a scene where Roma’s ghost returns to haunt Ui. But we see the real significance of Brecht’s gangster allegory in the headlines of the newspapers hawked by a street vendor between episodes. After Dogsborough, the chairman of the Cauliflower Trust, suffers a stroke, the headlines read “Hindenburg’s Death Imminent.” Roma’s death is announced “S.A. Chief Roehm and Friends Ambushed.” And when Cicero falls to Ui the headlines declare “Nazis Invade Austria. Terrorized Electorate Votes Yes for Hitler.” By the time the epilogue warns us that “Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard / The bitch that bore him is in heat again” we understand how the horrors of the Nazi regime have been part of a long, continuous history of injustice and despotism. The price of freedom, says Brecht, is indeed constant vigilance.

Mary-Arrchie’s production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui features a cast of 24 actors, many in multiple roles (playing in a space measuring only 22 by 19 feet, to be specific), and there’s not a slacker in the ranks. They step briskly, directed by Richard Cotovsky and Jeff Bek, to the tempo set by Bek’s one-man orchestra, which punctuates the dialogue with his ominous, emphatic sound design. The performers are uniformly excellent, but outstanding among them are Mark Vallarta as the chillingly charismatic Arturo Ui, Matt Giraldi as the doomed Roma, Christopher Scheithe as the Actor who coaches Ui in his public-speaking skills, and Frederick Husar as the ogrelike Givola (he does a remarkably light-footed top-hat-and-cane number during the “Give Us Whitewash” song).

Mary-Arrchie’s Arturo Ui is precisely the kind of fresh, innovative, vigorous new theater that has rightfully garnered so much attention for Chicago.