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Drug kingpins and theater directors who take on Richard the Third face the same problem: How to dispose of all the bodies.
When Robert Richmond staged the play at the Folger five years ago, he temporarily converted the playhouse into an in-the-round venue and built an elevated stage where the audience usually sits, with trapdoors and tunnels beneath so Richard’s victims could get sucked under the floorboards. Studio Theatre Artistic Director David Muse, returning to the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has opted for a more economical approach, setting this parade of seductions and assassinations in what looks like a decaying high school gym that’s been repurposed, perhaps by some mass casualty cataclysm, into a morgue.
It’s too bad that Debra Booth’s dank, cavernous, industrial set, with mildewy concrete walls and a menacing surgical lighting rig suspended from the ceiling, is the most memorable element of this inspiration-starved production. Lindsay Jones’ original score covers the scene changes with ersatz hair-metal shredding that in a post-Wayne’s World world can conjure laughter but never tension or dread. More successful is the onstage rhythm section: Muse and Movement Director Steph Paul have ordered the sprawling cast to do enough stomping and clapping to fill a dozen Freddie Mercury biopics. Ancillary characters clap-stomp (and sometimes leather strap-stomp) a simple rhythm in the background as Matthew Rauch’s Richard bends his sycophants to his murderous will; more characters begin to clap along as he speaks, suggesting that Richard’s amorality is infectious. Watching powerful men abandon whatever pretense of scruples they once had to prop up a purely self-serving head of state who shows no reciprocal loyalty to them is so obviously timely you almost feel stupid for thinking it. And of course, the playwright was thinking of the political climate in the 1590s, when he was writing this play set in the 1480s. His queen was descended from Henry VII, who’d deposed Richard III, so it was in his interest to demonize the latter.
Muse is working from what he terms “a fairly radical cut” of one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, though including intermission, it still clocks in just shy of three hours. He’s eliminated Richard’s deformity save for a limp that comes and goes, and like Drew Cortese in that 2014 Folger production, Rauch — conventionally, symmetrically handsome — is an unlikely candidate to play a “rudely stamp’d, deform’d, unfinish’d cripple.” The notion that Richard’s malformed body reflects his corrupt nature isn’t one that plays any more, but it’s still disorienting when Richard is the most dashing dude on the stage.
Muse manages some variety in the mode of dispatch: Richard subjects his enemies and potential enemies to stabbing, lethal injection, and drowning; Christopher McFarland’s Duke of Buckingham rates merely a bullet in the head. When Richard’s victims return to haunt his dreams on the last night of his reign, Muse stages it, as others have, as a zombie attack, with Richards’s youngest victims, Prince Edward and the Duke of York, emerging from a freezer where they’ve been hung from meathooks. It’s a little grand guignol to feel tragic, but it’s livelier than most of the preceding couple of hours. When Richard III goes to sleep, this Richard III, if only for a moment, wakes up.
610 F St. NW. $44–$125. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.