Richard III

When they put their minds to it, the folks at Pioneer Theatre Company can slap together a mighty fine show. William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” playing through Feb. 27, is a triumphant addition to an already marvelous season at Utah’s premier theater.

“Richard III” is a daunting play to perform. It’s Shakespeare’s second longest, after “Hamlet” (PTC has trimmed it down a bit); it’s rather dark and moody, and not a real “crowd-pleaser”; and it has about 12,000 characters to keep track of, some of which have the same names as other characters. Furthermore, the story is not familiar to the average theater-goer like, say, “Romeo and Juliet” is.

But director Charles Morey steps up to the task admirably and leads us through the murder, intrigue, madness and more murder with expert skill.

The story: Our main character Richard (Patrick Page) is a jealous, murderous, mildly deformed wacko — a “poisonous, bunchbacked toad,” as one character perceptively calls him. He has the first lines of the play, and in those lines he informs us that he has already killed and will kill again. He kills his way to the throne of England, knocking off brothers, nephews, wives and anyone else whose death he thinks will benefit him. He lies, steals, and — did I mention this? — kills constantly. A poisonous toad indeed!

And yet, we find ourselves somehow on his side — or at least not totally against him. He pops off one-liners and has a charisma that makes him oddly likable. His slightly hunched shoulder and weak legs that cause him to take an embarrassing fall now and then make him sympathetic. Near the end, when he proclaims, “No creature loves me and if I die no soul will pity me,” we feel sorry for him. His mother’s (Libby George) declaration that he was a menace to her and all society from the moment he was born makes us realize he never was good, even though we want him to have been. We want him to be a true tragic hero — someone who was good at one point but succumbed to his “fatal flaw.” Richard’s fatal flaw was being born — and his physical handicaps suggest he couldn’t even do THAT right.

Those physical handicaps are symbolic of the handicaps upon his conscience, of course. The old maxim that “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” holds true here, but Morey takes it to another level. Richard uses “the sword” to get through life, figuratively leaning on it as a crutch, a way of getting what he wants. By the end, his legs give out on him completely and he is forced to use two swords as crutches — a literal representation of the way his whole life has been. Only when those crutches are knocked out from under him — literally and figuratively — can the monster be destroyed.

Page plays Richard with remarkable finesse and apparent ease. To make a madman like this a sympathetic character for any length of time requires an actor of consummate talent, and Page fits the bill nicely. His schizophrenic midnight rantings are particularly good, and by the time he’s offering his kingdom in exchange for a horse, we know he’s completely lost it. Page takes us through all of this step by step.

George’s performance as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, is also outstanding. The aforementioned pivotal scene between her and her problem-child son packs an emotional wallop, and George looks and sounds like she’s torn from the pages of history. Later in that same scene, Richard and Anne (Jessica Walling), the wife of one of his dead brothers, have a dialogue that is also intense, almost draining.

The performances all around are quite good, making the play surprisingly accessible. The Elizabethan English loses its meaning occasionally as some actors get too frenzied and rapid in their delivery, but for the most part, there is little difficulty following the action as long as one pays attention.

“Richard III” is not performed very often, and you’re not liable to see a better performance of it anywhere anytime soon. All the more reason not to miss this production.

Quite a show, this. I had virtually no knowledge of "Richard III" prior to this, except that I used the "winter of our discontent" speech for an audition once (and got the part). Richard is such a fascinating character -- a complete and utter villain, totally despicable, and yet still our main character. Shakespeare was taking a major risk doing it that way, but he got away with it. I think it's a terrific play.

One of the best parts of the show was just after Richard had had someone killed, I forget who. They brought his head onstage in a bloody sack and threw the sack around like a soccer ball. It was nasty, and we loved it.