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The latest production from one major local theater is a rousing polemic about an ambitious man who becomes leader of his country under dubious circumstances, then drives the nation to war without much thought for the long-term consequences. It ends amid a landscape of shattered skyscrapers, in a public square littered with the bodies of soldiers and children alike. It will come as no surprise that the author of this timely and terrifying drama is named Shakespeare.

Given the tenor of these times, Richard III is, if anything, more bracing than usual in Gale Edwards’ modernist Shakespeare Theatre production, which among other things replaces the script’s rabble public with a corps of largely uncritical press—acknowledging with a grim wink that spinning to shallow scribes is all a present-day despot need do to advance his agenda. But for all its political edge, this staging is also unapologetically entertaining: Edwards never forgets that this history/tragedy/morality play is also a ripping good yarn, and given the brutal flair with which she stages its bloodiest scenes, the audience might be forgiven for mistaking it for a particularly stylish episode of The Sopranos.

From its first phrases, Martin Desjardins’ incidental music exhibits a dark but jaunty air quite in character with the antihero it introduces; Mark McCullough washes the silver-charcoal walls of Peter England’s clinically spare set with cool blues, ominous reds, or sickly yellows as the mood demands, dialing the hospital-flat ambient lighting toward a warmer gold each time the plot thickens. Edwards stages the essentially political murders—of Clarence, for instance, who stands between Richard and the throne—front and center in the set’s anonymous industrial expanse, reserving an upstage elevator lobby, dimly visible through frosted-glass panels, for the more personal killings. It’s hard to say which of the harrowing executions in that space is ultimately more chilling, but my money’s on the unspeakable twist Edwards gives to the smothering of the play’s two youngest victims; it’s a vividly staged gesture that takes its cue from the 20th century’s greatest horror, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it sends a few patrons to the exit.

Their outrage, if it comes, will be grounded in the awful fact that they’ll have been rooting, at least a little, for Wallace Acton’s slight, seductive Richard. It happens with most actors, of course—that cuttingly ironic “Now is the winter…” soliloquy that opens the play is catnip for any audience worth its discontents, and we always accept its sly invitation to complicity—but Acton’s golden-haired Richard is a more charming rogue than usual. Shorter and slenderer than most of those he eventually destroys, disfigured only mildly by a moderate limp and a smallish version of that famous hunchback, he cuts a deceptively nonthreatening figure. (Not least because he’s a well-tailored one: Murell Horton dresses this Richard in severely chic blacks, with flared cuffs and structured waistcoats that suggest, among more soberly clad statesmen, a man hiding a Machiavel’s drive under the frippery of a clotheshorse.)

And Acton is smart and subtle enough to show us not just that Richard’s an actor at heart, but that on one level or another, every now and again, he begins to believe the lines he’s constantly writing for himself. Not for long, of course, but enough to make this Richard utterly convincing where it matters most—in, for instance, his seduction of the woman he’s just made a widow.

Caroline Bootle charges that scene with all the confused emotion it demands, scribing Lady Anne’s arc from anguish through white-hot outrage to tearful, stammering vulnerability, indelibly marking out one of the evening’s chief patterns: The women caught up in Richard’s extended family feud provide much of the story’s emotional weight, setting the air to ringing with their curses and lamentations as he manipulates and murders his way to the throne. In Tana Hicken’s hands, the Duchess of York’s fiercely contained reaction to the news of her eldest son’s death is one of the evening’s small beauties. The slightly campy odor of witchery that attends Jennifer Harmon’s ancient Queen Margaret, however, is one of the night’s few off-key elements, and it undermines a pair of crucial scenes. Still, it’s in the bitter late-evening confrontation between the “bottled spider” and the arrogant but much-wronged Queen Elizabeth (a compellingly icy Diana LaMar) that the balance of power in this production finally tilts; the withering force of her accumulated rage brings Acton’s Richard literally to his knees, and it’s clear even as he turns his attention to the looming war that he’ll never entirely recover his equilibrium.

Amid the vast population onstage, Shakespeare Theatre regular David Sabin stands out for the dignity with which his betrayed Hastings marches to his end; Simon Billig, too, does understated but effective work, proving again as Richard’s cohort Buckingham the truth of Hannah Arendt’s banality-of-evil observation.

The production’s pace flags a bit after his victims’ ghosts make their vengeful way through Richard’s dreams, as focus begins to shift on the eve of battle toward Daniel Travis’ blandly virtuous Richmond, but it picks up again in a mercifully brief stylized-warfare sequence, which ends when Richard’s famous “My kingdom for a horse” cry gets its punctuation from the flash and bang of an artillery shell. And then a weighty calm settles as the victorious Richmond makes his way across that devastated urban-warfare scene, visibly tallying the awful price of his triumph; the usually heroic cadences of his concluding speech are muted, the slow beats of a shellshocked threnody.

Edwards’ audacious politicking may offend purists who don’t go to the theater looking for punditry, but they’ll have to acknowledge that Shakespeare himself gets the last word in the might-vs.-right debate. As Richard’s moral bankruptcy becomes too glaring to ignore, as members of his tenuous coalition begin to waver and then distance themselves, the Bard sends him off to his ill-advised war with a defiant snarl: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use, devised at first to keep the strong in awe: Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.” If those words have a familiar ring, it’s probably because with tyrants, it’s always thus.

What’s the difference between vile Richard and fair Eliza? Her family won, that’s what: The Earl of Richmond who unseated Richard III was Elizabeth’s grandfather, who took the throne as Henry VII—and the Tudors apparently spent a good chunk of their propaganda budget demonizing the last Plantagenet until he became, at least in the popular imagination, nearly the blackhearted fiend the Bard gives us.

But the harsher histories suggest that Elizabeth, daughter of the wily Henry VIII and survivor of endless plottings, was no less ruthless, and there are hints of a stern monarch indeed between the lines of Elizabeth the Queen. Maxwell Anderson’s ’30s romance may spend its energy (and sympathy) dramatizing the sacrifices Elizabeth the woman made for the sake of Elizabeth the politician, but the play never argues that the latter didn’t rule the day—which makes Michael Learned’s warmth all the more welcome in the title role of the Folger Theatre’s production.

Influential Elizabethans—Walter Raleigh (Gary Sloan), Robert Cecil (Jeremiah Wiggins)—scheme and bicker at the margins of the court; they’re mostly distractions or plot-advancing devices, though John Lescault makes Francis Bacon a man of substance. The story stays chiefly focused on Elizabeth’s affair with Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex (dashing Martin Kildare), who for a time commands not just her affections but those of the populace. Indeed, too much so: His charisma and ambition threaten her hold on the throne, and his chauvinism keeps him from following her lead away from political danger. In the end, it comes down to a heart-or-head choice—and anyone who knows Elizabeth knows how that’ll play out.

Richard Clifford directs with a sharp sense of irony and a near-choreographic feel for the play’s beats. His design team supports him with a sleek production that points up the drama without slowing it down; Tony Cisek’s forbidding aluminum palace eclipses the Folger’s warm woods to emphasize the cold, hard calculations that govern Elizabeth’s world, and Scott Burgess’ brooding sound design both underscores onstage clashes and sustains the resulting tension through scene changes that might otherwise diffuse it.

The show’s final image is a stark one: A shattered but resolute Elizabeth sits isolated on her throne, silent and still until the sound of the headsman’s ax startles her—and Learned’s flinch is as eloquent as any of Anderson’s lines. In her way, she’s been as ruthless as any Richard; to her credit, it’s cost her a part of her soul. CP