Through March 9
201 East Capitol Street, S.E.
$40-$72 (some discounts available)
Early in Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the title character makes it crystal clear that he’s a hater, not a lover. He ascribes his villainy to his physical deformity (a hunchback and withered arm), explaining that because he’s built for neither love nor sport, he’s unable to enjoy the days of elder brother’s peaceful reign.
So instead, he devotes himself to furthering his titanic ambitions, devising twisted plots and lethal machinations, and stopping at nothing to make the throne his own.
As Richard in Folger Theatre’s take on the epic blood fest, Drew Cortese makes a most appealing sociopath. He is at turns many things: disarmingly charming, seductive, coldblooded, malevolently ruthless, and — for a split second or two — vulnerable. And while he possesses all of Richard’s sinister means of persuasion, Cortese limits his Richard’s deformity to a heavy limp. And you’ll find the actor is hardly “rudely stamp’d” — the crown sits nicely on his handsome shaved head and he doesn’t look bad in his leather pants, but I digress.
When we meet Richard, he’s already killed King Henry VI and his heir. In further clearing his path to the throne, he kills a kindly older brother Clarence, his two child nephews, his wife, trusted friends and sundry others. It’s an unparalleled royal killing spree. Of course, Richard doesn’t do the actual murdering. He has two muscled flunkies for that, but he’s never far from the crime. In the case of his accused traitor Hastings, Richard asks that his severed head be promptly delivered for his viewing. Here, it arrives in a large jar.
Even Buckingham, Richard’s cousin and closest conspirator, isn’t immune to his liege’s heedless wrath. The moment he shows a hint of hesitation in carrying out Richard’s most heinous of plots, his days are numbered. With Richard, no one is safe.
Hardly surprising, Richard doesn’t want for enemies. Henry IV’s vengeance-seeking widow Queen Margaret calls for his demise describing him as a “hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death…” And even Richard’s own mother, the Duchess of York, curses his existence as he heads off to the battlefield for the final time.
For this fast-paced, boldly accessible production, director Robert Richmond has altered the Folger into theater-in-round, brilliantly making the audience part of the action and seemingly privy to Richard’s next diabolical move. Tony Cisek’s set is a slightly raised, sleek black rectangular stage. Its many trap doors serve as exits through which Richard’s selected victims disappear — his beleaguered wife (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) goes willingly; some are coaxed, and others go out fighting.
Despite having ample doses of humor, the production is dark. At times Jim Hunter’s lighting is eerily moody. Eric Shimelonis supplies the increasingly ominous beats and, after each murder, the sound of slamming doors. Mariah Hale’s costumes are goth.
Cortese, who was terrific as a recovering addict in “The Motherf***ker with the Hat” at Studio Theatre last season, has a reassuring grasp on the language and brings great nuance to the part. He is surrounded by a capable cast including Howard W. Overshown as Buckingham, and Nanna Ingvarsson who smolders with quiet fury as Richard’s righteously aggrieved mother, the Duchess of York.
The historical Richard III died in battle. His skeletal remains were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England, in August 2012.