Few Richard IIIs surely, have stooped as low as Al Pacino.
In this season of awkward postures - with Tom Conti cranked up in his hospital bed throughout "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" and Philip Anglim tilted over like a man lugging a heavy (but invisible) suitcase in "The Elephant Man" - Pacino is a convincing and welcome addition to the fold. As Shakespeare's hunchbacked killer-king, he shuffles about the stage like a hamster raised on its hind legs, and presents a disability that could truly begin to account for the evil of the man.
Pacino is not all there is to this production, alas. But more of that later.
"Was ever woman in this humor wooed?" his Richard asks us with a smirk, as he commences his assault on the grieving Anne after murdering her husband. "Was ever woman in this humor won?"
Beyong being a villain, Shakespeare's Richard is acutely and sometimes engagingly aware of his villainy. He gleefully narrates his own rise to power, inviting the audience to share the thrill of it.
For this is the story of a politician who, like some less malevolent, was at his best in the campaign and was somewhat confused by the requirements of office once he had actually ascended to it. And Pacino, too, is especially pleasing in the plot-hatching phase of the play quietly confiding each successive step with a wink and a twisted smile.
Rid of the New Yorkese that has characterized his speech in a string of movie roles, Pacino is a wonderfully compact dynamo of malice. (And in his more feverish moments, he spreads a cloud of split over the stage as vast as that emitted by many far bulkier Shakespearean stars.)
But malice needs a target. Pacino's supporting players, beginning with Penelope Allen as Anne, are such a weak and implausible lot, on the whole, that his victories are approximately as suspenseful as fish shot in a barrel. Richard's accession consists of a fragile chain of unlikely triumphs. Here, they are all too likely.
As limp as some of these players are on their own, the crowd scenes and action scenes are weaker yet. Director David Wheeler, of the Theater Company of Boston, shows no feel for the physical tussle and color of a historical pageant. He has arrayed his actors randomly and wantonly in the dialogue scenes, and staged the play's more energetic moments with a lot of meaningless running back and forth, much of it in the aisles.
The two executioners sent to do away with the Duke of Clarence are about as fearsome as the two hangerson in "Laverne and Shirley." Their accents are in that vein, too. And so feeble is their knifemanship that it is hard to see why the Duke could not easily overpower them both.
The spare scenery, a group of platforms that shift around to no special purpose during the blackouts, seems calculated to frustrate rather than enhance visual excitement. But crowd management is not one of Wheeler's strong suits. The crowd that beseeches Richard to accept the crown is a weary group of actors who, stationed at various points throughout the orchestra, seem somewhat embarrassed by it all.
Pacino has played Richard before, six years ago in Boston with Wheeler as director. So he should have known what he was letting himself in for this time, and presumably he wanted what he got - a sloppy, almost laissez-faire production.
The one distinctive feature of Wheeler's direction is his delight in having characters enter by charging down the aisle from the rear of the house.
Perhaps this is designed to discourage members of the audience from leaving. At any rate, anyone who tries to do so during the performance runs a high risk of being flattened. CAPTION: Picture, Al Pacino and Dominic Chianese, right, in "Richard III."