Geraint Wyn Davies portrays the kind of Richard III you wouldn’t mind bringing home to mother — provided your mother is Ilsa, she-wolf of the SS.
Silver-tongued as Satan in a three-piece suit, as flattering and goading as a celebrity publicist, Mr. Davies concentrates on the flagrant spin-doctor aspects of the character — and his Richard III glitters with a malevolent charm that is equal parts smarm and smite. As he did with the nasally challenged hero Cyrano in “Cyrano de Bergerac” a few seasons back, Mr. Davies invites us to look beyond the disfigurements (and with Richard III, a humpback, clubfoot and sociopathic personality are a lot to forgive) and see the men as lovers, warriors and supple masters of language.
So what if Richard III’s gore-splashed ascent to the throne includes a body count higher than Martin Scorsese’s entire oeuvre? Or that his to-do list embraces children, wives (one of whom is the widow of the slain king, whom Richard hits on while she’s accompanying her late husband’s corpse to the chapel), brothers, and loyal servants.
Director Michael Kahn’s angular and brisk production presents Richard III as a blue-blooded assassin, but also as a consummate actor who assumes the roles necessary to get what he wants. The chameleon quality of Richard III makes him a slippery figure — you cannot brand him as pure evil because you’re never quite sure which is his true nature and which is playacting.
“Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s most straightforward plays, as the action almost solely dwells on the hero’s brief and bloody ascent to the throne, until there’s hardly anyone left but young Henry Tudor (David Gross) to bring the king down — which Mr. Kahn stages graphically, with Richard III hoisted into the air like a drawn and quartered animal awaiting the butcher’s blade.
The tension between the death-march plot and the elusiveness of Richard III’s character makes for an unusually complex production, one that incites sympathy and rabble-rousing. You long for England to be purged of generations of cruelty and power mongering, the theme of an out of kilter kingdom echoed in Lee Savage’s set, a two-story structure tilted like a fun house. Yet, you also wish for the latest and most brilliant incarnation of this legacy to linger for awhile longer — a delicious indecisiveness that is expressed in the play’s language, a rapid back-and-forth banter usually found in Shakespeare’s comedies.
“Richard III” has an enormous cast and you almost need a flow chart to keep the various warring factions straight — and, as such, the usual inconsistencies in ease and flow with Shakespeare’s language arise.
Despite the male dominance of the action, it is the women who contribute many of the evening’s most compelling performances, starting with Claire Lautier’s subtle portrait of disgust and dusky attraction as Lady Anne, the widow Richard is so keen on before deciding on a more politically opportune bride. Tana Hicken is frighteningly resonant as the harpy-like dowager queen who fearlessly heaps curses and ominous predictions upon Richard III and who proves his most even match in the battle of wits. As Queen Elizabeth, Margot Dionne’s histrionic line deliveries in Act I bear unfortunate comparisons to Margaret Dumont. But she manages to get a grip and take on a grave power in Act 2, especially in the chillingly seductive scene where Richard tries to get her to hand over her young daughter.
On the male side, Edward Gero garners great empathy as the manipulative, allegiance-switching Duke of Buckingham; Raphael Nash Thompson excels as the steadfast Hastings; and Andrew Long is poignant as the doomed brother, the Duke of Clarence.
Ever since Shakespeare put quill to paper, “Richard III” has symbolized treachery and tyranny. But don’t let any of that get in the way of your delighting in this king’s dark company and then hating yourself for doing so.
WHAT: “Richard III” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre Company, 450 7th St. NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through March 18.
TICKETS: $19 to $76.25
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS