Richard III -- At the Eisenhower Theater through September 27.

Why set "Richard III" in the Napoleonic era? There is certainly no historical point made from this, in the American Shakespeare Theater production at the Kennedy Center.

If there is any point to that choice -- and pointlessness is the least of the crimes against Shakespeare committed by this Richard -- it must lie in the implication that Richard is like the nut who thinks he is Napeleon. (Although you might say that one of Napoleon's problems was that he made his relatives kings, not corpses.) Richard and his court all behave like comic-strip lunatics -- with maniacal laughs, inability to focus their eyes or keep their hands off their crotches, hostile behavior such as spitting on one another, gestures and voice into-nations irrelevant to the meaning of their words, and sudden attacks of imaginary ills that have them shivering violently or rolling about on the floor.

What, then, is the play about? It used to be about an evil man who is able to use the weaknesses of others to maipulate them to his advantage. It was also, of course, an attempt to glorify the House of Tudor by turning the last Plantaganet -- on no real historical evidence -- into such monster that Queen Elizabeth's ancestor who killed him began to look like a savior, instead of a conqueror.

But in this production, Michael Moriarty's Richard succeeds in becoming king merely by being the most persistent and conscience-resistant in a crowd of lesser maniacs. Shakespeare's references to Richard's internal conflicts are neutralized by being pronounced sarcastically; therefore Richard is not a man who has chosen evil, but one whos einsanity demonstrates that he did'nt know right from wrong.

There was never a lot to choose from, morally, among the characters, but here Richard's victims, some of whom are raving nuts and the rest sniveling ones, don't seem responsible for their actions, either. Viveca Lindfors' Margaret of Anjou, who smokes cigars and sprawls on the floor as if she were wearing jeans, has all the appeal and effectiveness of a tattered old woman on a sidewalk corner screaming at passersby.

The production, directed by Andre Ernotte, is not the kind of experimental failure that makes one feel embarrassed for the participants; it is the sort that makes one angry at their ignorance and arrogance.