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February 27, 2008

OGIC: The dog is dead

If you check out the Top Fives this week you'll see that I've added an item specifically for Chicagoans or, I suppose, greater Midwesterners with weekend wanderlust. The item in question is a play that just opened at Strawdog Theatre here in town, where Terry and I so enjoyed Brian Friel's Aristocrats last autumn. Now Strawdog, which is in the midst of its 20th anniversary season, is offering Richard III with the company's Artistic Director, Nic Dimond, directing. It's another winner.

I'm a sucker for a good villain. Even more so, I'm a sucker for casting villains against type. It's not easy to pull off, but when successful creates a frisson like no other. Strawdog's John Henry Roberts, who plays the title role here, struck me as just such a case--his open features and essentially empathetic demeanor assert themselves even through Richard's blackest lines. And Roberts makes this work. He made me feel that I too would have been taken in. It makes the evil more insidious, the sting of its revelation in someone likable and trusted more devastating.

Strawdog's performance space is challengingly small but seems to bring out the ingenuity of set designers and directors alike. For this production, however, that ingenuity seemed more directed at emphasizing the closeness of the space than overcoming it. Before any lines are spoken, an opening party scene crowds seemingly every actor in the production into this space, nearly bursting its seams. This establishes a creeping sense of claustrophobia that meshes well this Richard's particularly insidious brand of malignancy.

In addition to Roberts's performance, Strawdog ensemble member Jennifer Avery's turn as Queen Elizabeth has to be singled out. In the earlier scenes, when she's not yet widowed--and worse--she's a perfect blithe Renaissance Heather. Later, she brings a quiet, heartbreaking conviction to Elizabeth's sorrow and her last line of defense against Richard's designs on her daughter. Nothing flashy here--just a thoroughly convincing and moving habitation of her character and flawless execution. Here and in Aristocrats, Avery did wonders with characters who start out hard and gradually are humanized. Whatever she does next, I hope to be there.

Posted February 27, 2008 1:47 PM

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