Villainy sells. In Shakespeare Theater Company’s Richard III, the titular character, played with oily evil by Matthew Rauch, holds spellbinding sway, unspooling audience fantasies of shrugging societal shackles to indulge in our every narcissistic whim with impunity, nay, reward. Titillation eventually sours but it’s an irresistible course for an hour or two. This creepy production of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses quasi-history play is very much the vision of Director David Muse, a former associate artistic director of Shakespeare Theater Company and current Studio Theatre head.
Muse’s portrayal of the Bard’s most sinister villain does not solely lay accountability at the feet of foul Richard, but highlights the culpability of those who reinforced the con. A strong supporting cast negotiates with their own morality as they fall in line. It increases your heartbeat no small amount to watch powerful leaders, notably Duke of Buckingham (Christopher Michael McFarland), Lord Hastings (Derrick Lee Weeden), and Sir William Catesby (John Keabler) abandon any sham of scruples to hitch their star to a rising devil. Muse dabbles in updating, with Sofia Cheyenne’s Mayor of London seemingly feisty initial tone, but ultimately she too falls prey to the script’s limiting cage, with head-scratchingly insufficient transition. Indeed, the audience itself can’t help but feel complicit, watching Richard’s gleeful, bloody assent, and doing nothing to stop it.
Debra Booth’s set upstages even Richard himself – a hybrid of Nazi torture chamber, Frankenstein’s lab, and high school gymnasium circa 1950, it is dank, sterile, harsh, and ominous. In the first Act, the subterranean tile chamber felt frustratingly limiting. But with a breathtaking transformation to a literal morgue in the second Act, the vision clicked into place as the body count added up. Truly, the entire story of Richard III is one long slaughterhouse to the morgue. Muse doesn’t mildly kill off-screen, as originally written by Shakespeare, but shines an enormous surgical lamp on the ghastly reality of Richard’s collateral damage. Water is a recurrent weapon, flowing through each grisly death. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting beautifully highlights the treachery, the victims, and the crimes.
The women of the play bring #MeToo back to the 1500s. Widowed Queen Elizabeth (Robynn Rodriguez), Richard’s mother the Duchess of York (Sandra Shipley), and dethroned Margaret of Anjou (Lizan Mitchell) soulfully broadcast their hatred of Richard, even as their power is limited to crying insults and curses. Cara Ricketts does a striking job in the troublesome character of Lady Anne, redeeming her initial galling gullibility with keen-eyed despairing descent in Act II. And savior Earl of Richmond (Evelyn Spahr) is recast as a woman, her warmth and collaboration a conscious contrast to Richard’s cruel megalomania, and perhaps a nod to the present day.
Elements of contemporary strengthen the production. It is to the great ease and convenience of all that Muse uses supertitles to introduce the large cast of characters, and certain transitions. Sound designer Lindsay Jones turns the intensity up to eleven right off the bat with loud, guitar-heavy hair band music. Countering this is Steph Paul’s coordination of the ensemble cast into a simple but menacing rhythm of clap/stomp, knife whetting/stomp, or leather strap/stomp. Murell Horton’s costumes bring a modern bent, gradually transforming over the course of the play to actual physical bondage concomitant with Richard’s increasing grip on the characters as he rises to the crown.
The play is obviously timely. “This should be an impossible play to experience without thinking about right now,” explains Muse. He further explains that he was most compelled to portray the way “people negotiate with themselves, choose to fall in line and align themselves with power, normalize what isn’t normal.” If you want to get your dose of corrupting charisma from somewhere other than the daily news, Richard III will do the trick.
A word of caution – This production includes graphic depictions of violence, including violence against women and children, which may not be suitable for all audiences. Discretion is advised.
Richard III is playing at The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sydney Harman Hall (610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004) through March 10, 2019. Running time: approximately two hours and 30 minutes with one 15 intermission. For information or tickets, call the box office at (202) 547-1122, or click here.
Images credit: Scott Suchman