Author: Jill Kimball

Rodney Lizcano plays the villain

A CSF favorite takes on Richard III in the 2018 season.

Ian McKellen. Laurence Olivier. Kenneth Branagh. Benedict Cumberbatch.

These men have two things in common: They’re often thought to be the some of the best actors of their respective generations, and they’ve all played Richard III, Shakespeare’s most venomous villain.

CSF favorite Rodney Lizcano is set to play the 15th-century king at this summer’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival—and given the long shadows these men have cast, he’s a little nervous.

“Like Hamlet, Richard has many ‘actor traps,’” Lizcano says. “Many actors have played the role and have been critiqued at length. Everyone has their favorite interpretation, so how will mine stack up? Now that’s a challenge.”

Might some audience members compare Lizcano’s performance with some of the most famous turns of all time? Yes, inevitably. But if any Colorado actor can stand up to those comparisons, it’s Lizcano, a man with no pretensions and impressive range.

At CSF, Lizcano has slipped seamlessly between a dozen comic, tragic and historic parts, big and small—and somehow he’s managed to steal the show every time. In 2015, he was “the ultimate patsy” and “fantastically clueless;” a year later, he was “wonderfully cunning and evil.” Challenging as it may be, the role of Richard III is the perfect fit for an actor with such varied skills.

“I think a lot of actors are attracted to Richard III because of the huge range of emotion the character undergoes—whether feigned or not,” Lizcano says. “Between that and the words and imagery, the meter and punctuation … there’s a lot of meat on the bone. It’s an actor’s dream.”

Why is Shakespeare’s regal thriller, now more than 420 years old, still so popular with audiences and actors alike? Perhaps because it’s a masterful study of villains, examining with little judgment why they do things most of us deem morally wrong.

Shakespeare drew inspiration for his main character from England’s real-life King Richard III, who in the play schemes and murders his way into power. (Whether he was quite as barbarous in real life is up for debate.) Eventually, the monarch meets an end as bloody as the crimes he’s perpetrated. But Shakespeare’s play is more than just a simple cautionary tale—it’s a plea for sympathy and understanding, a suggestion to think beyond good versus evil.

“I think [Richard III] is one of Shakespeare’s most well-written characters,” Lizcano says. “He’s not just ‘evil meanie villain.’ You can’t play that character for two hours on stage—I’d be bored, and the audience would definitely be bored.”

Shakespeare’s clever writing and three-dimensional character studies make boredom almost impossible. The Bard’s king is as funny, self-deprecating and pitiable as he is despicable—so Lizcano isn’t worried about presenting audiences with a complex character.

“When you portray a villain, it’s all about finding the levity in the moment and honesty in the character,” he says. “For me, humor is the catalyst to making a character multi-layered. It releases the dramatic tension.”

To find his inner Richard III, then, Lizcano is sure to reflect on his 2016 turn in “Equivocation,” where he played the contemptible but still comedic Robert Cecil. (Cecil, a cunning statesman who worked directly with Elizabeth I and James I, had a lot in common with Richard III—including severe scoliosis, tremendous insecurity and massive political ambition.) But before he even thinks about rehearsing lines and fleshing out his character, he’s hitting the books.

“Right now it’s about research and development,” he says. “There are two Richards to read about—the historical one and the character Shakespeare writes about. The challenge here is to formulate and compile as many notes as possible and start to make strong choices about the character.”

He says whatever choices he makes will underline the character’s timelessness. Lizcano believes Shakespeare’s history plays were never so much about retelling history as they were about speaking to the nature and foibles of humankind, then and now.

The play is as relevant today as it was 400 years ago,” Lizcano says.”It reflects how leaders choose to use their power, or in this case, abuse it. A subject like that never gets old.”

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