Paul Collins' unusual interpretation of the role of Richard III in the Folger Theater Group's production is creepily modern but justified in the text. It throws the conventional balance of the play out of whack, but it's interesting enough to be worth that.

Shakespeare didn't put one decent person in this play until Act V, Scene II, when his queen's grandfather shows up to save the day and promise that his heirs will bring peace, plenty and prosperity. (His actual slogan is "smooth-faced peace, with smiling plenty and fair prosperous days.")

So Richard, whose entire family and social circle consists of people who are connivers at best, most of them also being traitors and murderers, is traditionally made to seem villainous only by the extent and blatance of his crimes. It takes a hideous character to make one feel sorry for such people as Margaret of Anjou, who claims revenge for her murdered family while dismissing the York brother they killed as having been "a peevish brat" anyway; Lady Anne, who drops her father-in-law's corpse and interrupts her venomous attack on his assassin to accept that gentleman's offer to make her queen; Edward IV, who sanctimoniously blames everyone in sight for not stopping his own revenge on his brother, Elizabeth, his queen, who dreads his death only because it might injure her social position; and so on.

This Richard, however, is different. He has a cool anti-hero appeal in contrast to everyone else's hypocritical rantings. So while it's good to see him get his at the end, one strange thing about this production is that it's also somewhat satisfying (or at least not pitiful) to watch the others being done in by him. The roles of the women are difficult enough to make sympathetic, but while Mikel Lambert, Elaine Bromka and Dale Hodges go at it valiantly, the contradictions in their parts keep sticking out because of Richard's cynical frankness.

Another strange thing is what this does to the Earl of Richmond, later King Henry VII, the savior who comes in at the end. It's not only Chris Romilly's bland priggishness that makes him seem suspicious, it's the atmosphere that Richard has established, like the immediate post-watergate days, when one would assume that any politician with an open face and smooth tongue must be a crook.

Even those sweet little princes who were murdered in the Tower don't evoke pity. Norman Patrick Martin, as the young Edward V, has more or less successfully aped Uncle Richard's snotty manner, so it seems just as well that he didn't get to develop it any further.

All of this makes a peculiar "Richard III," after some 400 years, as far as we know, of Richard as super-villain who makes every one else look good. This thing comes off as a black comedy - when Richard admits his dirty tricks, while everyone else pretends moral superiority, the audience laughs. That's old Dick 3 for you. But nothing in the text is violated by this interpretation.

The history is quite another question, of course. In the absence of reliable evidence to the contrary, it's quite possible that Richard III was one of England's better kings, although the Tudor regime of Shakespeare's time, which supplanted the Plantagenets, is not likely to have thought so.

Director Louis W. Scheeder has added other modern touches. It's interesting to see that Mrs. Shore everybody's gossiping about, even though she has no lines. But the final battle scene, choreographed by Michael Tolaydo with armored knights in slow motion like astronauts swimming clumsily through space, makes Richard's offer of his kingdom for a horse sound like a technological gyp. To top it off, Richard is trapped by a gang with a net and presented to Richmond for stabbing, which gives irony to the victor's then being hailed as "courageous Richmond."

The worst mistake is Susan Tsu's costuming. Everyone is in black with touches of brass, which is dull and provides no contrast between those in immediate mourning and those profiting by the corresponding deaths. Richard's severest handicap is not his character or his body, but that he is dressed like Puss-in-Boots, with a red shower curtain for a robe of state.

RICHARD III: Folger Theater, through July 16.