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Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

Geoff Wilson (center) plays the conniving title character in Actors’ Theatre’s updated production of Richard III (Actors’ Theatre photo)

By Richard Ades

When I heard Actors’ Theatre was going to turn Richard III into a 1950s American crime saga, my first thought was: How are they going to explain the title character’s best-known line: “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”

Are they going to pretend that 20th-century mobsters have traded their Cadillacs and Lincolns in for four-legged transportation?

As it turns out, the relocated Shakespearean drama runs into problems long before Richard utters the iconic lament. Thankfully, good acting helps to salvage the production, but not before viewers have spent much of the proceedings scratching their heads.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why director Jennifer Feather Youngblood decided to recast Richard and his followers as mobsters. In his attempt to satisfy his lust for power, he’s as ruthless and violent as any Mafia capo.

Unfortunately for Feather Youngblood and her cast, Shakespeare refuses to cooperate. His script is clearly about someone aspiring to be England’s king, not the head of some crime syndicate. The tale is so immersed in British history and geography that you quickly forget it’s been relocated to 20th-century America. It simply comes across as Shakespeare that’s being performed in relatively modern dress.

To make matters worse, viewers apparently aren’t the only ones who don’t buy the hop across the pond. Most of the cast doesn’t, either. Though a few of the smaller roles are played with Jersey accents, Geoff Wilson’s Richard and most of his cohorts and victims speak in standard Shakespearean English.

Complementing the inconsistent accents is the production’s inconsistent tone. Most of the play’s many murders are handled with appropriate solemnity, but one is as darkly comedic as if it had been directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Most inconsistent—and jarring—of all is the recorded music that accompanies each scene change. It seems to have little to do with what’s happening around it.

For example, after Richard sends a pair of assassins to dispatch his trusting brother Clarence (David Ailing), the air is suddenly filled with the strains of Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire. If you’re like me, this will leave you with two responses: (1) “Oh, that’s right, this is supposed to be 1950s America” and (2) “Huh?” It’s hard to fathom why the rockabilly hit is being used to introduce an act of outright villainy.

One gets the feeling that Feather Youngblood envisioned an interpretation of Richard III that was much more sardonic—and, obviously, more American—than it ended up being. The result is that it comes across as a production with multiple, clashing personalities.

As I said, good acting helps to make the show entertaining despite its problems, particularly in Act 2. As for Act 1, I should mention that I didn’t see it at its best, as the performance I saw was plagued with annoying sound problems prior to intermission. But the script itself is also a problem early on: Shakespeare bombards us with so many historical characters and intrigues that we struggle to keep them all straight.

By Act 2, thanks to Richard’s murderous machinations, many of these characters have disappeared. This leaves us free to enjoy the rousing arguments and battles of those who remain.

Throughout, Wilson’s Richard is a powerhouse, exuding evil from every pore of his twisted frame. The rest of the cast also is consistently strong, even though it speaks with inconsistent accents.

Three actors are particularly notable as a trio of wronged women: Vicky Welsh Bragg as former Queen Margaret, Beth Josephsen as current Queen Elizabeth and Christina Yoho as Lady Anne. Male characters who stand out from the crowd include Ailing’s Clarence, Alexander Chilton’s Buckingham, Philip J. Hickman’s King Edward IV and Robert Philpott’s heroic Richmond. In a prominent smaller role, Jason Speicher is memorable as the goon-like Ratcliffe.

Maybe it’s because I share his name, but I have to point out that not everyone believes the actual Richard III was as evil as the Bard portrays him. Nevertheless, he makes a great villain. Even though you almost need a degree in English history to understand his world—and even though Actors’ Theatre further complicates matters by pretending he’s an American gangster—it’s fun to watch him connive his way to the throne.

Especially since you know he’ll eventually have that problem with the horse.

Actors’ Theatre of Columbus will present Richard III through Aug. 2 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets: pay what you will (donations accepted at intermission). Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.

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