By: William Shakespeare. At: Ingraham Park, Evanston. Tickets: MuseOfFire.weebly.com; free. Runs through: Sept. 9
Richard III transforms before the audience's eyes early on in Muse of Fire's titular production. Halfway through the opening soliloquy about his physical flaws ( which are so pronounced that dogs bark at the mere sight of him ), actor Jon Beal hitches up his shoulder, and uses a belt to cinch a stiff hand to his chest. For Richard, how one looks is useful theatre, not reality.
The same could said for Muse of Fire's final open-air production, which transforms the shadow under two trees into a throne room, a jail cell, and a battlefield simply with words. We believe our reality to be what the actors tell us, director Jemma Alix Levy warns in this staging, and it is that acceptance that can damn, as well as uplift.
If you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's tale of bloodshed and betrayal, just know that Richard sets his sights on the crown quite soon after the War of the Roses, and sets about murderingsometimes after royal marriageeveryone who stands in his way. His sister Clarence ( Sonia Goldberg ) is the first victim, with King Edward ( James Dolbeare ), as well as his tender-aged prince ( Drew Straub ) not far behind; the opportunistic Buckingham ( Chelsea Rolfes ) aids him in these schemes. Richard convinces Lady Anne ( understudy Ann-Claude Rakotoniaina ), whose husband he killed in battle, to wed him, while he destroys the lives of Queen Elizabeth ( Annelise Dickinson ), the former Queen Margaret ( Elizabeth Rentfro ), and his own mother ( Rebecca Fletcher ). And this is all before the ghosts show up.
This play is less a history and more a cavalcade of misery. It is an early take on England's royal lines, and Shakespeare's dramaturgy allows for much word play, but little relief, or any sense of who is loyal to whom and why. Thus, the actors must make each relationship spiteful and clear, and the ensemble largely succeeds in this. Fletcher is particularly damning in her cold stare down of Beal, proving that years of looking into her son's eyes has rendered her fearless.
Rentfro brings a robust hatred to her curses, and Dickinson excels as she falls further and further from glory, finding strength in anger. Rolfes is a great foil and fair weather friend for Beal, whose ability to turn from villain to penitent on a dime serves him well. Richard tells us he cannot play a leading role or romantic hero, but he can and does, pairing lies with fear effortlessly. I missed the shades of doubt entering the king's mind in Beal's performance, but that may come later in the run.
Levy's sharp text work paints a vivid picture of how accepting horrible threats and cajoling tones can create this plot's "civil wounds," and give rise to a tyrant. Muse of Fire ends its ten year run as a company with this production, and its emphasis on barebones stagings, coupled with energetic fight choreography and of the moment thematic resonances, will be missed in summers to come.