Critic's Pick: 'Richard III' at Cincy Shakes

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's production about the power-mad royal is the culmination of its multi-year project to chronologically present the Bard's eight plays covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III.

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click to enlarge Billy Chace (left) has the title role in Cincy Shakes’ production. - Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Photo: Mikki Schaffner Photography
Billy Chace (left) has the title role in Cincy Shakes’ production.
Shakespeare’s Richard III, written in the early 1590s, has been produced continually for more than four centuries. The power-mad royal who died in battle in 1485 at the end of the War of the Roses was Shakespeare’s first great villain.

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Billy Chace is currently grabbing the part furiously with both fists and his very soul. (Well, perhaps only one fist: Richard’s left arm was withered.) 

Cincy Shakes’ thunderous, hurtling production is the culmination of a multi-year project to chronologically present “The History Cycle,” Shakespeare’s eight plays covering the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III. The 23-year-old company is only the second in the United States to complete this feat. As Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips, who staged Richard III, told a sold-out opening night audience, the endeavor represented “five years of work and thousands of corpses.”

Many of those deaths resulted from warfare, but also a surfeit of murder and executions. Richard III, first as the Duke of Gloucester before deviously grasping the throne, is the greatest perpetrator of these crimes. His breathtaking tale of cunning deceit and cold-blooded elimination of those in his way invites showy acting. Not only do we see Richard repeatedly scheme to capture the crown, we hear his inner thoughts expressed, often cruelly, in monologues.

Chace is a fine choice for this legendary role. He excels in manic roles and his sense of timing, usually lavished on flat-out comedy, is well suited to Richard’s brazen acts. Until his death at the play’s end, Richard is the supremely confident manipulator. We see an early demonstration of his power when he seduces Lady Anne (Aiden Sims), his late nephew’s wife; Richard has been the instrument of her husband’s death. 

She is repelled by his advance, but as he woos her over the coffin of her father-in-law, Henry VI, he wins her over. It’s the first of many vile acts, including ordering the murders of his brother George, Duke of Clarence (Kyle Brumley) and most heinously his two young nephews who stand between him and the crown.

Chace plays the role with imposing physicality and relish. Richard was a hunchback (probably because of scoliosis) who walked with a limp, had a deformed arm and apparently suffered from ringworm. When we first see Chace as Richard, he’s wearing an ill-fitting black wig that he doffs to reveal a shaved head with a scalp infection. 

Chace finds numerous ways to demonstrate Richard’s horrid, intemperate nature — simpering when it’s useful and forceful when necessary, frequently revealing his chilling innermost thoughts directly to the audience. 

Three women fiercely resist Richard’s vile ways. Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI, played melodramatically by Kelly Mengelkoch, skulks into several scenes like one of Macbeth’s witches and predicts bloody ends for Richard and others. Sara Clark is Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV’s widow, who tries but fails to protect her children from Richard’s murderous plans. She eventually thwarts his intention to marry her daughter by pretending to agree with his horrid pursuit. Richard’s own mother, the Duchess of York, played with starch and passion by Annie Fitzpatrick as a woman who regrets giving birth to this wanton villain, curses him, too.

Shakespeare’s play was originally titled The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, and we do witness his tragic end, screaming, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in the thick of battle. He’s soon in hand-to-hand fatal combat in a horrendous onstage rainstorm with Henry, Earl of Richmond, who becomes Henry VII (Grant Niezgodski fills the brief role with a sense of upright honor). Ghosts of his many victims haunt him in searing dreams before his bloody demise.

Richard III is a demanding role, and Chace dives into it head first. Audiences will flock to Cincy Shakes to hate him — and revel in his delicious, cynical villainy.


RICHARD III, presented by the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through March 11. More info: cincyshakes.com.

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