Give Synetic Theatre credit for generally pressing whatever approach they choose all the way to the wall. With “Richard III,” the company is going cyberpunk, and the staging on the movement-based troupe’s Crystal City stage is dense with laser weapons, techno soundscapes and digital screens taking us inside the exceptionally glitchy mind of one of Shakespeare’s most popular villains.
Alex Mills is a defective bionic man as the antihero of this latest entry in Synetic’s “Wordless Shakespeare” series, and his twitchy, robotic performance often syncs up well with the images Richard summons on computer screens by a wave of his hand. But unlike the best of Synetic’s patented Shakespearean takes — and this, remarkably, is the 14th play the troupe has reinterpreted through movement — “Richard 3.0,” as the show dubs itself, flattens the characters down to adventure-comic dimensions.
The dystopia gives the designers lots to work with, though the menacing-looking set’s abstract tangle of metal and nasty-looking tubes by scenic and multimedia designer Tennessee Dixon is beginning to feel like a Synetic cliche. More impressive is the weird harmony with computerization the show strikes for Mills’s Richard in the early going of Nathan Weinberger’s trimmed, liberal adaptation, which envisions a Richard so badly wounded in battle that he has to be rebuilt like a machine. (Naturally, this action-amped staging includes a prologue that lets us see — in live action, not on screen — the ever-flexible Mills as Richard getting blown up by a grenade.)
Director Paata Tsikurishvili’s hurtling, 105-minute show is most interesting as it tries to define the brave new terms of Richard’s existence. Shakespeare’s minor characters Tyrell and Ratcliffe are reimagined as cyborg henchmen who engineer Richard in a lab, then do his bidding each time he presses commands on his high-tech forearm. From there, he goes through a lot of the play’s usual power-grab motions — starting, unconvincingly, with seducing the widow Anne over the casket of her husband, whose death was due to Richard.
Supplanting Shakespeare’s twisted, frothing speeches and arguments with compelling movement is a challenge the production doesn’t always meet. Weinberger and Tsikurishvili allow a few lines of Shakespeare, especially early as Richard’s new mechanical identity kicks in; a phrase that jumps out is “Since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain.” Yet Mills’s blunt, rude tango with Maryam Najafzada’s too-compliant Anne is the first of many encounters that erodes the intrigue of Richard’s bloody climb to the throne.
The sophisticated video is sometimes shrewdly integrated into the action, though. (Scott Brown is credited as the video producer and editor.) Richard uses it to plant conspiratorial seeds into the mind of his ally Buckingham, played here by Matt R. Stover as a stupefied bumbler puffing heavily on a vape pen. Mills almost finds a tender streak in a later scene between Richard and Anne, turning a sinister digital image to a flower as she approaches; it’s manipulative, yet hopeful. In moments like this and the cruel reversal that follows, you glimpse the narrative allure of a robotic Richard whose uncontrollable hybrid body motivates his vicious decisions.
Yet the plot dulls as Richard imprisons, poisons and otherwise scythes through his impediments to power. It’s a thick atmosphere, all right: Brian S. Allard’s colored lights carve through stage fog; Dixon’s multimedia screens split and roll into various positions; and Eric Teague’s apocalyptic punk costumes add a creepy, post-human texture to the characters, propelled through their scenes by Konstantine Lortkipanidze’s brooding, pulsing music. The tragedy climaxes with a fast-motion video montage that’s horror-worthy, but it’s a synthetic finish to a mostly bloodless show.
Richard III, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Nathan Weinberger. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sound design, Thomas Sowers. With Irina Tsikurishvili, Thomas Beheler, Philip Fletcher, Jordan Clark Halsey, Tim Proudkii, Aaron Kan, Nutsa Tediashvili, Ana Tsikurishvili and Scean Aaron. Through Jun 16 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Crystal City. About 105 minutes. $35-$65. 866-811-4111 or synetictheater.org