Richard III Credit: Liz Lauren

The murderous little man with the hunchback? Oh, he’s just the title character, King Richard III of England. The one to keep your eye on is the young nobleman called Richmond. Though he only shows up for the first time in act five, he’s pretty much the point of Richard III—or so he was for Shakespeare and his audience—because he’s going to become King Henry VII by killing Richard at Bosworth Field. Then he’s going to marry Elizabeth of York, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster, which will effectively end the Wars of the Roses and establish the Tudor dynasty. And you know who was a Tudor, don’t you? Henry VII’s granddaughter, the reigning monarch at the time Richard III was written, Elizabeth I.

No surprise, then, that the queen’s grandpa is depicted as a pious, brave, loving, and intelligent young man, while Richard is the bad seed whose own mother calls him a toad and tells him, “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell.” What is surprising under the circumstances is how utterly mesmerizing the toad can be, even in this Chicago Shakespeare Theater production, which is compromised by a significant miscalculation.

Shakespeare did this sort of thing every so often. Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear are good examples of villains who just plain enjoy their work and practice it with an elan and eye to quality that make them a guilty pleasure.

Like those master craftsmen of crime, Richard has his reasons for going bad. In the soliloquy that opens the play, he lets us know he’s planning to turn treacherous because he was born “deformed, unfinished, sent . . . into this breathing world scarce half made up.” He’s such a mess, in fact, that dogs bark when he’s near. But he proves soon enough that for him ugly is only a handicap in the golfer’s sense of the term. He’s playing for the love of the game. His most triumphant bit of knavery is romantic: he famously woos Lady Anne, the widow of one of his victims and daughter-in-law of another, even as she’s accompanying one of them to the grave. Any brute could accomplish this through intimidation—love me or I’ll kill you, too. Richard does it by arguing that it’s Lady Anne’s fault he committed the murders: he did it for her love. And it works. Even he can’t believe it. “Was ever woman in this humour wooed?” he kvells. “Was ever woman in this humour won?”

But the punch line comes in the next pentameter: “I’ll have her,” Richard confides, “but I will not keep her long.” Sure enough, Lady Anne eventually joins Richard’s impressive pile of royal victims on the bier. This is no namby-pamby Macbeth, who only really gives himself over to evil when it dawns on him that he’s “stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er.” Richard jumps in and splashes around from the start.

Trouble is, he can wear thin after a while, precisely because he has no second thoughts. Edmund and Iago are subsidiary characters: their evil is doled out in spoonfuls, here and there, so we never get tired of them. Richard is essentially a subsidiary character, too—but he has to carry an entire play.

Director Barbara Gaines and her Richard, Wallace Acton, try to leaven the toad’s sociopathology by playing it for laughs. Looking remarkably like Bug-Eyed Earl, the guy with the modified führer ‘do in Max Cannon’s Red Meat comic, Acton goes for the comedy even as he murders children, rolling his eyes and giving insinuating line readings. His approach is weirdly similar to what Joey Slotnick is doing with the Groucho Marx role in Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre; I almost expected him to run downstage and say, “These are the jokes, folks!”

Like the wooing of Lady Anne, it works—for a while. But Gaines and Acton overdo the conceit, with the result that when the shit hits the fan on Bosworth Field and Richard needs some gravitas, he hasn’t got any.

Still, Acton supplies an entertaining performance for most of the three-hour show, and Gaines gets to indulge her Jacobean sensibilities in ways that don’t turn ludicrous the way they did in her Macbeth last season. The scene in which Richard’s ghostly victims promenade, cursing their executioner and blessing Richmond, is chillingly effective. And the cast, weighted toward longtime Chicago pros, is strong—particularly Jennifer Harmon, Wendy Robie, Angela Ingersoll, and Mary Ann Thebus as the royal mothers and wives who have to bear the toad in ways the men can’t possibly comprehend.