A kingdom built on graves. Given the discovery in 2012 of the purported final resting place of the real King Richard III, one would be hard-pressed to come up with a central image timelier and more apt than the one director Robert Richmond chooses for this reasonably well, er, executed production of “Richard III.”
Positioning the audience (for the first time) on all four sides of the Folger Theatre stage, the director proposes a performance space as a repository of death. Into a floor whose decorative pattern resembles a medieval rose window, the resourceful set designer Tony Cisek carves out a series of compartments, each sized for one human corpse.
Or in the case of this bloody play — in which the body count is almost as long as the cast list — one more human corpse. Richard’s brothers, wives, allies and enemies, from stripling boys to hardened aristocrats, all tumble into crypts like so many summarily dispatched ensemble members of “Sweeney Todd.”
It’s a craftily ghoulish cavalcade, highlighted by a display in formaldehyde of the grisly fate of poor blindsided nobleman Hastings (Sean Fri). So what are we to make of the rather cool-looking Richard who presides over all this carnage?
With his head fashionably shaved and his legs swathed in leather pants, Drew Cortese seems less the repulsive “bottled spider” described by Richard’s kinfolk than the model for a Vin Diesel action figure. And despite the “who — me?” attitude this Richard puts on, an audience is never in doubt of the star quality of this malignant spirit or of the inevitability of his rise.
The impression of physical near-perfection that the finely spoken Cortese conveys — the only concession to Richard’s deformity here is a limp that could have resulted from a sprained ankle — is a hindering element in this otherwise decently handled “Richard III.” Not because the notion of a sexy Richard isn’t an interesting choice, but because Richmond and Cortese don’t exploit this idea to the hilt.
Wouldn’t this Richard understand the power he has over women, in a story in which the moral authority of the female characters holds such sway? (So much so, in fact, that the director reassigns the triumphant line, “The day is ours, the bloody dog is dead!” to one of his major female cast members, Naomi Jacobson’s mad Margaret.)
The production seems to be asking us to consider this aspect of Richard’s allure as an explanation for the ease with which he turns the tables on all whom he disgusts. I’ve seen actors play Richard as a man in love with dissembling, or as a man in rage at nature’s cruelty, who uses that gift or that anger to get all that he wants. Cortese takes no such accessible route.
Although this Richard is a man who seems naturally inclined to charm away any resistance, situations in which this concept might be explored are left underdeveloped. The scene late in the play, when he corners the queen (Julia Motyka) whose children he’s had murdered and brazenly asks her help in marrying her surviving daughter, is a case in point.
Without prodding, Motyka’s Elizabeth sheds a weird-looking bolero, revealing bare shoulders and a leather corset and straps that suggest a night of kinky revelry. Is she offering herself up instead? Is Richard turned on? Has he provoked this come-on, in a woman who’s used sex before to seduce a king? The scene comes across as oddly neutral on both sides, without danger or consequence.
The production has a lot more success as a reckoning of Richard’s crimes; in the undoing of each of Richard’s blameless (or not so innocent) victims, the director comes into his own. He makes a virtual party of death: This version begins not with Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech but with a celebration around the shrouded body of the dead King Henry VI, whose ending, in a sense, is Richard’s opening.
And it is at the precipice of death where the cast excels, most notably in the portrayals by Michael Sharon as Richard’s bewildered brother Clarence, Paul Morella as the sickly successor to the crown and Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan as unwitting Lady Anne, the princess Richard woos in the veritable nanoseconds after he slays her husband.
Richmond’s in-the-square staging nicely accommodates the enveloping sense of mortality. Turned spectrally pale by canny lighting designer Jim Hunter, Richard’s victims rise from their graves to haunt Richard’s nightmare on the eve of his demise. The best moment is saved for last, in a fleeting image that wittily suggests that the cold judgment of Shakespeare is shared by history and time.
We’re deposited at the end of this “Richard III” in a curious phantom zone, not sure what to make of the mind of this tyrant and his psychopathically singular sense of mission. Maybe that is all we can expect. If we’re being encouraged to wonder — in the way the debate about him has been rekindled by the excavation of his apparent remains in a Leicester, England, parking lot — then this respectable if somewhat oblique portrait of Richard has achieved its desired effect.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Mariah Hale; lighting, Jim Hunter; sound and music, Eric Shimelonis; fight direction, Casey Dean Kaleba. With Andrew Criss, Daniel Flint, Michael Gabriel Goodfriend, Nanna Ingvarsson, Howard W. Overshown, Richard Sheridan Willis, Holden Brettell, Remy Brettell and Jenna Berk.
About 2 hours 50 minutes. $40-$72. Through March 9 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. www.folger.edu/theatre.