Richard III, Washington, DC

The Folger's new production leaves the audience engaged, if not breathless.

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The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Elizabethan theater has been transformed from its usual proscenium stage to theater in the round for Robert Richmond’s extraordinary production of “Richard III.” Every element — actors, costumes, scenic design, lighting, sound design and music — contributes to a production that both stops time and leaves one breathless for its speed.

Richmond has taken this history cum tragedy from five acts to a two-part show with one intermission that runs just over three hours. Given the small size of the theater (capacity is 250 seats) and the unabashed positioning of actors in the audience, including the second balconies, the play achieves absolute audience engagement. Best not to arrive late for seats on the ground floor or you will be shown to the balcony.

Because the cast of characters is large and complicated in how these characters are related to each other, it’s imperative to read up before claiming your seats. Mariah Hale’s stylish costumes that use a lot of leather and zippers help distinguish the many men of this cast. Briefly: The deformed Richard, Duke of Gloucester but soon-to-be Richard III (Drew Cortese), wants his brother Edward IV’s (Holden Brettell) throne. Edward is ill and next in line is their brother George, Duke of Clarence (Michael Sharon) because Edward’s two young sons require a regent. Richard arranges to have George/Clarence killed and this sends the sensitive Edward to his death. Next he arranges for the murders of the two boys. Along the way, Richard also has various others, some loyal to him like the Duke of Buckingham (Howard W. Overshown), killed. The substantial side stories deal with the wives, mothers, and daughters of the dead.

Not only has Richmond arranged for the stage to be in the middle of the theater where formerly seats were bolted to the floor, but the stage has a comprehensive set of trapdoors that serve as a graveyard for Richard’s dead. The floor itself is painted in such a way to suggest a spider’s web. Occasionally light shines from underneath parts of the floor. The director, thinking about the play and the recent discovery of Richard III’s bones under a parking lot in Leicester, said, “…the lens of the newly designed setting … shows the man who has been buried beneath the surface for so long.”

While Drew Cortese’s Richard limps, has a slight rounding of the upper back, and a bald head, he is quite a dapper figure in slim leather pants and a well-fitted dark woolen overcoat. How he convinces Lady Anne Neville (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), widow of Edward, Prince of Wales, another man murdered by Richard, to marry him is stunning. Keegan as Lady Anne spits and curses at him while Cortese as Richard does not flinch and spins a web of charming words that confuse the grieving woman. The psychology between the two is a study of intensity and they both convince and confuse the audience in how to feel about what is seen and heard.

Another scene with similar dynamics occurs between Richard and his brother Edward’s Queen Elizabeth (Julia Motyka). Elizabeth, poured into a sexy long red dress that has a black leather bodice and a matching red cutaway jacket that is all sleeves and collar, is wildly furious with Richard about the murder of her sons, but he insists that she must convince her daughter to marry him. By now he has had Lady Anne murdered and wants to clinch his claim to the throne by marrying the deceased king’s daughter, never mind she is his niece. While the original play has Richard kissing Elizabeth to seal the deal, Richmond’s adaptation has the overheated queen kissing Richard in a shocking, mobster-kiss-of-death power play.

Composer Eric Shimelonis adds original music to this production. As the play opens the corpse of King Henry VI lies in state as a recording of Shimelonis’ beautiful funeral tribute “Lacrimosa,” with Latin text adapted from the standard Requiem, is sung by Rebecca Sheir. She sings four parts tracked in eight voices so she sounds like a full choir. Shimelonis plays the organ accompaniment.

This is a production worth seeing more than once.

Karren L. Alenier

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