Hell to Play: Drew Cortese radiates evil as Richard III.
Hell to Play: Drew Cortese radiates evil as Richard III.

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A Richard III is only as good as its eponymous rudely stamp’d, deform’d, unfinish’d cripple, and on that score at least, Folger Theatre’s new production has struck it rich. Drew Cortese, the energetic chameleon last seen around these parts a year ago as Jackie—the poor, cuckolded ex-con in Studio Theatre’s superb The Motherfucker with the Hat—is the man with the limp. He’s as raptorial in this as he was raw in that, wooing the audience as efficiently as he woos Lady Anne, whose father and husband he’s slain before the play even begins. Richard must turn on a pence from undisguised megalomania to lovelorn humility. Cortese glides through these shifts like an eel through muddy water. He’s so good you feel impatient during the handful of scenes he’s not in.

The real-life Richard’s remains were uncovered in a coffinless grave in a Leicester car park 18 months ago. There were early hints that director Robert Richmond might take that discovery as his inspiration to try to alter our perception of Richard as a supervillain for the ages just as radically as he’s altered the Folger’s 80-year-old Elizabethan-replica theater, unbolting the chairs from the floor and staging the action in the round. If you’re lucky enough to snag a bleacher-style seat on what used to be the stage, the presence of the balconies in your sight line will make the space the players occupy below seem like a pit. Which is, in this symphony of assassinations, essentially what it is.

Production manager Charles Flye and scenic designer Tony Cisek have built a maze of tunnels under their unfurnished stage, accessed via hinged trap doors. When characters get iced, they’re dragged below the floorboards, like Bill Paxton in Aliens. Richmond’s immersive staging helps mitigate the famously gnarled plot, reducing the “Wait, who’s that again?” quotient to roughly that of a typical episode of Game of Thrones.

But House of Cards, about a Machiavellian congressman who confides directly to the camera, is the high-toned TV show most directly descended from this play, a fact that calls out an opportunity to innovate that Richmond and Cortese haven’t quite taken.

Writing about a historical moment in his country more recent to him than the events of Lincoln are to us, Shakespeare was beholden to a century’s worth of revisionist history that has emphasized Richard’s moral and physical hideousness. This was to appease the Tudor monarchs—including Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own queen—whose right to the throne was more tenuous than the Yorkist Richard’s had been. So it was in everyone’s interest to paint Tricky Dick 3 as a “hellhound” who simply had to be stopped, and the playwright did his part by serving up the most eloquent hit piece of all time. More recent, less partisan scholarship suggests that Richard was probably no more vile than his successor, Henry VII.

That’s why one can’t help but feel a little disappointed in how conventional this version, for all its visual élan, ends up feeling. Even Mariah Hale’s costumes—dark overcoats, leather pants and bustiers, black body armor, a cobwebby mourning dress for Naomi Jacobson’s Queen Margaret—and Jim Hunter’s green-hued lighting palette recall last year’s Wallenstein at Shakespeare Theatre Company. That’s not to say these stylistic choices don’t work; in fact, they’re as well-matched to the bloody material as composer/sound designer Eric Shimelonis’ ominous organ-and-vocal score. They’re just not revelatory.

This is a strong revival of a difficult play, one that brings every advantage to the battlefield except surprise. That Cortese is one charming devil. But he’s still the devil we know.