Looks like someone mixed up his scepter and his ugly stick.
Looks like someone mixed up his scepter and his ugly stick.

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Richard III

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Kahn

Produced by the Shakespeare Theatre Company

At the Lansburgh Theater to March 18

King Lear

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Alfred Preisser

At the Folger Shakespeare Library Theater to Feb. 18

What might the world look like to a man misshapen? We’re accustomed to thinking of the vicious title character, Richard of Gloucester, as the one who’s off-kilter in Richard III—crabbed and bent not just psychologically but physically, too, with a hump on his back, one leg shorter than the other, looking sideways at a world the rest of us see straight-on.

But what if the orthopedic shoe were on the other foot? Suppose for a moment that it’s the rest of the court—all those seemingly virtuous, straight-backed royals who spend the play scheming against Richard—who have the skewed worldview. Suppose the snarling, nasty, hellhound we’ve always loved to hate and the world he lives in are actually in sync.

Well, in a riveting visual coup de théâtre at the Lansburgh Theater, that’s more or less what director Michael Kahn and his designers have posited. Lee Savage has come up with a rusting-metal prison yard made up of bulkheads, bridges, and staircases—and tilted all of it, except for the floor, sharply down to the right, as if the world inside the proscenium arch had shifted on its axis. A central door, from which servants are washing blood as the lights come up, is a trapezoid, and when chandeliers pop down from the ceiling for a scene at court, they do so at an angle. Only the throne—that symbol of rightness and national virtue—sits on a true perpendicular to the floor, and in these angled surroundings, its vertical rectitude looks wrong.

Enter Geraint Wyn Davies as Richard, high up on a staircase that spirals weirdly to the floor. He speaks gently, conversationally, and, most of all, charmingly of winters and discontent, of his own deformity, and of his resolve that, being too “rudely stamped” to be a lover, he will prove a villain. For all his chatter about setting his brothers against each other, his is not a snarling Richard, at least at first. You note the scrunched eye and withered cheek on the scarred half of his face while also noting that the half of his smile curling up on the unscarred side is altogether pleasant. Except for his talk of treachery, he seems good company, and as he descends the last few steps of the staircase to reach the floor, you realize with a start that he’s no more bent than the world he inhabits.

It’s the others who feel strange in this tilted world: grieving but clear-eyed Lady Anne (Claire Lautier), who agrees to marry Richard while the father he assassinated lies bleeding before her; Mad Margaret (a ferocious Tana Hicken), muttering dire prophecies for all the royals who’ve succeeded her; devious Queen Elizabeth (Margot Dionne), cursing Richard for slaughtering two sons even as she schemes to save a daughter. Has there ever been a prince as clueless as George of Clarence (Andrew Long), or a machiavel as cravenly calculating as the Duke of Buckingham (Edward Gero)? If these folks represent the world as it should be, that doesn’t make Richard any less a monster, but it does place him in context.

Apart from the angled setting, Kahn has conceived the Shakespeare Theatre’s Richard III in essentially conventional terms. Jennifer Moeller’s lush, flowing black and brown costumes are medieval-­looking. There are no overt references to the current administration (though if Buckingham’s dirty tricks remind you of Karl Rove, no one will say you nay). Charlie Morrison’s lighting so fragments the stage image that it looks as if a shredder has cleaved the air itself into shafts.

And in this rusting, pulverized hell on earth, the director conjures all manner of mayhem—bodies dragged away still twitching, blood oozing from freshly wrapped corpses, palsied hands reaching delicately into bowls of strawberries. Not everything in the evening is effective. Slow patches plague a second half that really ought to be building to a flashy finish. But happily, the finish is there, even if the build isn’t—a stringing-up of the title character that even Spider-Man would have trouble topping.

Along the way, Kahn helps the actors run with the text to places nearly as unfamiliar as the strangely angled stage they’re ricocheting around—from Aubrey Deeker’s delectably despicable Catesby (usually a minor factotum, but this time a reliable scene-stealer) to Davies’ seductive, alarmingly captivating Richard. Like the actor’s grandly schnozzed Cyrano a few seasons back, this misshapen king is a dreamer who relishes every opportunity to seduce because he knows how repulsive others find him. If he were conventionally handsome and charming, rather than bent and monstrous, where would the challenge be?

And so he wheedles and cajoles, getting so caught up in the play-acting of innocence, that it doesn’t occur to him until he’s gained the off-kilter world he sought, that it’s not worth the gaining and that he can’t possibly hold it.