Jon Beal as a dying Richard  Photos by Mary Mumbrue

All good things must come to an end. Having thrilled outdoor theater goers and Shakespeare enthusiasts for 10 years, Muse of Fire wraps up its stay in Evanston with a brutal, harsh, honest performance of Shakespeare’s meditation on violence and power, “Richard III.”

This is by no means an easy or happy play. The subject is the violent wrenching of power by one admittedly villainous prince from family members, many if not most of whom meet violent ends. It is not great Shakespeare, either – the playwright was growing into his art when he wrote this history, full of long, repetitive speeches. But there are seeds here, and the portrait of a violent, nasty, ambitious charmer as climbing leader fits unfortunately well in these times.

Jon Beal delivers a slimy, covetous Richard, at the same time showing the charisma behind the filth. Even as he plots to kill anyone who threatens his quest for power, and more often than not delivers on his threat, the audience cannot help but be somewhat charmed. He is almost naïve in his ridiculous, squirming obsession with ultimate power. It takes a special, talented actor to make the audience have any feeling other than complete revulsion for someone so despicable.

Ann Claude Rakotoniaina stepped in as an understudy to play Lady Anne in the opening performance, a remarkable feat given the complexity of her role (and the fact she played two other roles as well, as is often the case in Muse of Fire performances). Anne is a difficult character for the audience – she agrees to marry the man who just murdered her husband and son. Because the exchange between Richard and Anne informs most of what follows, it must be done well. It is the key to believing Richard could accomplish anything and win over anyone.

Ms. Rakotoniaina’s performance was astonishing. The audience feels for Anne, and while it is difficult to forgive her for her actions, at least we can cringe in solidarity and understanding. Muse of Fire has never shied away from the difficult – despite and maybe because of – the afternoon, outdoor setting for the performances.

The remaining cast members are all excellent – up to the standard set by this company in past performances. Special praise goes to Elizabeth Rentfro for portraying the bitter, angry, long-winded and repetitive Margaret, then turning around to play the bumbling sycophant Brakenbury moments later. 

Mayor Stephen Hagerty introduced the opening performance, thanking the more than 100 people who attended opening day. Calling the company “Fire and Muse,” he thanked them for years of performances, adding, “I have no doubt someone else will step up” in the coming years.

“It is sad for all of us, and we hope that you will miss us,” said Muse of Fire Artistic Director, and the Director of this year’s play, Jemma Alix Levy. She told the RoundTable earlier it was just time to end the run given her commute from Virginia for performances and rehearsals.

Evanston will most certainly miss Muse of Fire. Contrary to the Mayor’s statement, this writer sees the company as irreplaceable. Someone else may step up and produce free outdoor theater, but it will not be the thoughtful, challenging, engaging and professional work Muse of Fire has provided us over the years.

With both Muse of Fire and Arc Theater, Evanston has been spoiled by access to quality, free outdoor Shakespeare performances for years. Add in Mudlark’s performances – which continually surprise and impress – and the City has been truly blessed.

See calendar information for performance dates and places, pp. 18 & 19.