Oh Richard, Richard, whatever are we going to do with you?
Shakespeare’s charismatically evil hunchback king has an even shorter reign on stage than he did in real life, but he manages to cram a lot of scheming into that time. Brothers, friends, nephews, co-conspirators, even a wife — all get slaughtered in his perfidious quest to get and keep the crown. “I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard III tells the audience at the top of his play. Done and done.
As directed by David Muse and performed by Matthew Rauch at the Shakespeare Theatre Company until March 10, the last king in the Plantagenet dynasty doesn’t let his deformities, internal or external, slow him down. Rauch cajoles and snipes with the best of ’em, a performance that slides more and more into place as it goes on, like lenses being added to a telescope to make it stronger. His leather braces and vaguely BDSM aesthetic from costume designer Murell Horton — as well as the refreshingly gritty and skeevy scenery by Debra Booth — set the tone for this particularly bloodthirsty production of Richard III, or, as STC’s ads and promotional materials call it, “Richard the Third.”
Speaking of the promo literature, the selected tagline of “It’s good to be the king” is an odd choice. Not only does it put one in the mind of Mel Brooks, the play shows over and over the horrible things that happen to kings.
No doubt the PR team just wanted something to work with other than Booth’s grey, filthy clinical set, which represents a much stronger creative decision. It looks like a level of Resident Evil, or perhaps a Nine Inch Nails music video, and it’s staffed with knife-sharpening, leather strap-snapping butcher-killers who stalk the grimy tile and concrete with menace.
The sadism is more than skin-deep, too. Under Muse’s direction, the kingdom of England looks an awful lot like an abandoned mental hospital, and the parade of horrors goes far beyond what the script requires. Shakespeare spares us, for example, the onstage murder of children. Muse doesn’t. Deaths of strangulation, beheading, stabbing, and drowning are all moved from offstage to center stage, to the point where squeegees are needed to mop up the gore.
There are some outstanding performances swimming in all the blood, particularly among the women, who are some of Shakespeare’s most difficult and unknowable female characters. Robynn Rodriquez, Cara Ricketts, Lizan Mitchell, and Sandra Shipley are all fabulous as a series of tragic queens and mothers-of-queens. And the royal lords do look natty in their red-splattered two-piece suits.
At the center of it all is Rauch, finding good punchlines and relishing Richard’s cruelty like it’s a deliciously bitter tonic.
Richard III, the man, is mean enough on his own. Richard III, the play, doesn’t need to push it.