Richard III

A bloody “Richard the III” is onstage at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre through March 10. (Courtesy Photo)

A bloody “Richard the III” is onstage at DC’s Shakespeare Theatre through March 10, and its sinister and dark delivery takes Shakespeare’s title character to a new level of villainy.

Directed by David Muse, the play has fewer characters, changed lines and gotten rid of many historical references as this version of  “Richard” challenges the audience to question whether he is a psychologically complex, real person or an archetype of pure evil. In Muse’s hands, Richard is as real as possible, and the director has no problem pointing out how Richard’s characteristics remind us of many real people in our world today.

For instance, in the program notes, Muse states, “He has a compulsive desire to dominate and win; he expects loyalty but is incapable of gratitude; he uses and discards people; he feels entitled and he has no moral compass. He’s also an expert spinner of news and spreader of misinformation.

“He’s a con artist who excels at demeaning other people; he is a misogynist; and a man of inward weakness who projects outward strength.”

Muse further points out that the most compelling ingredient about the play is not just the study of one man. “It’s also about how people negotiate with themselves, choose to fall in line and align themselves with power, and normalize what isn’t normal.” With all the talk today from one well-known leader (hint, hint), who is keen to adhere to the wishes of his “base,” the play is particularly timely.

The play opens to Debra Booth’s ominous, brooding set, which portrays the Tower of London and a torture chamber. A huge spotlight, with a robotic arm, is effectively used to light up several bloody murders, which, by the play’s ends, tally up to 10.

Muse modernizes the play further by inserting props that remind one of the recent horrific events. For instance, in one macabre murder scene, a saw is used to cut off the head of Richard’s supporter, Lord Hastings, bringing to mind the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In a second scene, Richard orders the deaths of Prince Edward, the legitimate heir to the throne after his late father King Edward IV, and his brother, the Young Duke of York, and their murders are depicted by waterboarding, a reference to the tortures at Guantanamo Bay.

The despicable Richard is played by Matthew Rauch, last seen at STC as the Dauphin in Henry V, and Rauch is perfectly suitable for the role. He plays Richard as a snake charmer (he even hisses the “s” sound in the word ‘peace” in an opening speech) who plots to overtake the throne from his ill brother King Edward IV/Sir Richard Ratcliffe (David Bishins). Usually portrayed as a physically deformed hunchback, Rauch uses a cane, wears a corset-like top, and has leather straps on his left leg to restrict his movement.

As he devilishly plots the murders of those he sees as an obstacle to his power, Rauch is brilliantly sarcastic. For instance, he sickly reasons to Lady Anne of Neville (ably played by Cara Ricketts) that yes, he may have killed her husband and father-in-law, but it was out of love and passion for her. He later displays the same attitude after he kills his two nephews, the young princes, reasoning to their mother and his sister-in-law Queen Elizabeth (an impressive Robynn Rodriguez) that, yes, he may have killed her sons, but that he will make a better king.

He vows to make up for his sinister deed by marrying her daughter and his niece, making his niece the Queen of England, thereby making Elizabeth, in a sense, his mom.

An ensemble of other talented cast members beautifully contributes to the performance, with Lizan Mitchell portraying the powerful and prophesizing warrior-politician Queen Margaret of Anjou, the widow of the deceased King Henry VI of England.   Christopher Michael McFarland, as Richard’s greed-driven fixer, the Duke of Buckingham, is dark and assured as he schemes to do Richard’s bidding. Derrick Lee Weeden, as Lord Hastings, is commanding as the loyal supporter who Richard turns on and has beheaded.

The two hour and 40-minute production greatly benefits from Lindsay Jones’ original music and sound design that pierces the air with haunting echoes and reverbs, punctuated by the metallic, steel-on-steel sharpening of knives and snapping of leather straps that eerily forewarn the death of each character.

Lap Chi Chu’s lighting aptly sets the on-stage mood, and Murrell Horton’s costumes add to the modern day, contemporary feel.

“Richard the III” is amongst Shakespeare’s most widely produced and popular plays, and often links Richard’s physical deformity to his psychological disposition. This version, with its intensified violence and gore and contemporary references, is fodder for new thought long after one leaves the theater.

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