A man holds up a freshly severed head. A woman stares at it with loathing and love.

"Don't cover your face," calls the director. The woman moves right up to the head, all but touches it. Which is difficult, because the head isn't there yet.

It's a rehearsal of "Richard III," starring Michael Moriarty, and it's being done at the Kennedy Center because Moriarty happens to be here for another play. The Shakespeare tragedy will play all next month at Stratford, Conn., opening in Washington Sept. 4.

That seems a long time off for the intensity director Andre Ernotte was getting out of his actors. Dressed in jeans, tights, shorts, most of them carrying scripts and pencils, they were already deep into their parts.

Intensity is the word for this unique production, which is being done in the costumes of the Empire period of Napoleon III, though it opens with some figures in Elizabethan dress and closes with Edwardian effects.

"The idea is that evil carries on," said Ernotte. "We want to show the timeless nature of tyranny through the centuries. And that period was really good for it, with the decadence, the political upheavals, the sexuality. rThe bits at the opening and closing are to get across the feeling of a cycle." t

Moriarty took it a step further.

"Richard is the stage manager of his own rise and fall. It's as though he just can't let the story go, he has to keep retelling it, always trying to justify himself, always hoping that this time, this time, they'll understand. It's so much like Nixon."

There are other new ideas. Moriarty sees the psyche of Richard as split between himself and Tyrrell, a relatively minor character, a messenger.

And there's dancing. The whole cast takes a daily class in movement, almost the only time everyone gets together, for the play is being rehearsed movie-style, out of sequence. The movement director, Ted Pappas, has been working his people long hours to get the blocking just right: the sweep of a crowd across the stage in a balletic rush, the choreography of the king's entrances, the dances: at the coronation and in a concert scene, there is music and dancing.

"Realism is only part of the theater," said Moriarty. "My idea is to combine realism, the abstract, impressionism, dance, seamlessly. The trick is how you get there. That's the wonderful thing about Shakespeare, he gives you a blank check, as Thornton Wilder used to say. Well, we're writing a few million dollars on it."

Ten of the actors are from Potter's Field, the acting company and school that Moriarty set up three years ago to train actors in the classics. Some others come from the American Shakespeare Theater because "there's no age or depth in our company yet, we're so new, but just wait 10 years."

He insisted on Viveca Lindfors for the role of Queen Margaret ("I wanted a heavyweight for that part"). As for accents there is no attempt at the conventional British Shakespearean diction. Just clarity and logic.

Because the Stratford stage is huge, and also because the restless mind of Michael Moriarty wanted to try something, the play has a soundtrack. It has background music of course, but also crowd sounds, weather sounds, the thwuck! of the executioner's ax.

"I think it'll help the audience feel this is all of a piece, events flowing. We've also cut the play a bit. I'm looking for a leanness in the script, a tautness, a feeling of rising tension."

Back in the rehearsal room Ernotte is huddled with Geoffrey Horne, who plays Hastings, he of the severed head. They're doing the scene where Hastings is told, just like that, he's about to die.

"I like what you do with your feet," Ernotte muses. "Your restlessness shows in the way your feet shift around. That's wonderful. So keep that. Now, when they come up to take you away, you should be . . ."