All the world’s a morgue: from left, Andrew Thornton, Billy Saunders Jr., Cara Ricketts, Sheldon Donenberg and Mihir Kumar in Shakespeare Theatre Company's “Richard the Third.” (Scott Suchman)
Theater critic

The morgue-set “Richard the Third” at the Shakespeare Theatre Company makes no bones about how violent it’s going to be. Note the gigantic surgical lamp hovering over Debra Booth’s huge creep-out set like a menacing robotic arm, or like some alien craving the next autopsy. Note the drain in the floor: By intermission, stagehands will be hosing away the blood and effluvia.

Is this underworld horror show the social reflection that 2019 Washington deserves, via Shakespeare’s tragedy of amoral power run amok? Director David Muse pushes his vision to the wall, filling Sidney Harman Hall with thundering doom rock that echoes up and down Booth’s epic tile and concrete morgue, a structure expertly detailed and streaked with rust and stains.

It’s a torture chamber, too: The props department has come up with ominous vats and masks and Frankenstein tubes for Richard’s minions to execute victims in macabre style. But at a glance you get the drift of this “Richard’s” sick tone. So where can the performance go?

Not nearly as far as that slap-in-the-face atmosphere, and for a drama as long and labyrinthine as “Richard the Third,” that’s a problem. The characters are so thoroughly defined by their locale that what they say is almost beside the point as we wait for the next flamboyant execution.

The thing about the bloodthirsty Richard, who ascends to power through lies, dirty tricks and thuggery, is that on some level he’s a spellbinder. People say yes when clearly they ought to say no, even though his deeds plainly speak for themselves. It’s like he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue yet still walks away with the widow, which is essentially how the play starts.

“Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” Richard says to the audience in a self-congratulatory aside after persuading Lady Anne to marry him, though he killed her husband. “Was ever woman in this humor won?”


Matthew Rauch in Shakespeare Theatre Company's “Richard the Third.” (Scott Suchman)

There’s the rub: How do people in positions to resist persuade themselves to go along with this goon? Muse, a former STC staffer and current artistic director of Studio Theatre, is aware of the question. But the twists of mind are seldom as exposed as you hope.

Richard can be a star part, and Matthew Rauch has a lot of the right elements. He’s wily and sarcastic, precise with his intentions and language: “Peace,” he says with disdain in an opening speech, hissing that “s” sound like a dangerous snake. Rauch is full-throttle sinister as the hard work of consolidating power begins. Yet in this highly engineered production, most of the fascination lies in how Rauch’s Richard looks.

There’s no hunchback, but if he doesn’t have a disability, this Richard fetishizes an idea of infirmity with a striped cane, a corset and a neck brace. It’s armor of a sort, and in a clever twist, his fashion sense catches on. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to work in a court where the chief seems to have his hands around the staff’s throats, costume designer Murrell Horton provides a breathtaking glimpse (no spoilers). It’s the closest this show gets to analyzing the dynamic of complicity.

Queen Margaret of Anjou is the tale’s voice of protest, hurling curses near the top of the play, and Lizan Mitchell delivers the warnings with mythic fervor. Among the entirely sturdy cast, Christopher Michael McFarland brims with dark confidence as Richard’s fixer, Buckingham, and Derrick Lee Weeden exudes dignity as Hastings, who eventually tallies the corruption and casualties and says, “I could have prevented this.”

That sentiment doesn’t wash. Like everyone else, Hastings is operating in a slaughterhouse, and the grotesque absurdity of the fatalistic setting never abates. The show aspires to be an autopsy on rancorous politics, but the particular chess moves are seldom intriguing or revealing. Instead, the spectacle of a deadly, dead-end game is overwhelming. This, the production says, is what it looks like when political players maneuver a lot and govern not at all. Who gets whacked next?

It’s played with power to match the design, so this “Richard the Third” is camera ready as a kind of morbid, icy hellscape. There’s a good chance this will stick with you days and weeks after you’ve seen it. But if the performance doesn’t illuminate heart and soul and mind, maybe it’s because in this dystopia, such things are almost extinct.

Richard the Third, by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse. Lights, Lap Chi Chu; original music and sound design, Lindsay Jones; fight choreographer, Robb Hunter. About two hours and 40 minutes. Through March 10 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. $44-$118. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.