NEW YORK — The moment of epiphany for me in Thomas Ostermeier’s dazzlingly grotesque “Richard III” comes deep into a lengthy sit (two hours, 40 minutes, no intermission), when Lars Eidinger’s feral Richard curls up in bed with his most trusted companion — his microphone.
The device, rigged to emit its own eerie light, hangs on a bungee cord over the center of the sand pit where Eidinger’s animated, athletic Richard prowls ceaselessly. He swings from the thing at one point early in the evening, and by the production’s end, it — like everything and everyone Richard touches — becomes a contaminated accessory to doom.
You may enter the Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater wondering what the hyperactively inventive Ostermeier, artistic director of Schaubuhne Berlin, a theater company in Germany’s capital, has in store for us. It turns out, though, that his enthralling “Richard,” in an adaptation by the highly regarded German playwright Marius von Mayenburg, is no knee-jerk act of nihilistic deconstruction. Shakespeare’s meter is rendered in this treatment as colloquial German (with English subtitles), but von Mayenburg hews faithfully to the plot. And the portrayal of Richard conforms in many ways to the traditional template, of a spider-like villain who, in systematically wooing and wiping out every friend and rival on his way to the throne, brings oblivion upon himself.
This buoyantly physical “Richard III,” augmented by a pulsating rock score by Nils Ostendorf and the beat of an onstage drummer (Thomas Witte) that together pummel you like a rainstorm of hammers, depends on Eidinger’s Richard for something like 110 percent of its impact. As evidenced by his obsession with the amplified sound of his own voice, this Richard doesn’t so much nurse his grievances with the world as fixate on constant reaffirmations of his specialness. A tyrant with a case of, hmm, malignant narcissism, maybe?
Flirting with the grieving Lady Anne (Jenny Konig) as she mourns her husband and kingly father-in-law — both of whom Richard has slain — Richard strips down to entice her with his nakedness. Who wouldn’t be turned off at such a display? Why, Lady Anne! Instead of shrinking from him, she embraces him for an intemperately passionate kiss. From this moment on, we understand that there’s no one in “this tottering state,” as Sebastian Schwarz’s Hastings puts it, who can avoid being steamrolled by the titan of malevolence in their midst.
Ostermeier has other mesmerizing images to put before us: the gory murder of Richard’s brother Clarence (Christoph Gawenda), butchered like livestock, his assassins stopping to watch as the sand soaks up a pool of his blood; the arrival of the young princes of Wales and York, portrayed here (terrifically) by a pair of life-size humanoid puppets; the ghosts of the Richard’s victims, stealing the microphone and illuminating Richard’s nightmares, courtesy of a camera embedded in the mic. The set and lighting designers, Jan Pappelbaum and Erich Schneider, serve the director’s vision grandly.
But it’s Eidinger who provides the best spectacle, invading the audience, stepping in and out of character, gorging on meals and smearing his face with the cream from his dinner plate, a coating that cakes on his features and dries rapidly. It’s not just a death mask. This Richard is death.
Even with the liberties Ostermeier takes, you sense an inspired intelligence working in concert with Shakespeare.
Not so the outrageous brains that torture “Measure for Measure,” at off-Broadway’s Public Theater, into some virtually unrecognizable version of itself, like an operating room full of inept plastic surgeons botching a facelift. Elevator Repair Service, the experimental company of long standing that has had success adapting such novels as “The Great Gatsby” and “The Sun Also Rises” for the stage, proves here to be wholly out of its element with Shakespeare.
The idea seems to be — well, you tell me, please, what the idea is. The modern-dress actors, under John Collins’s direction, spit out much of Shakespeare’s language as if they’re in an Olympic speed-reading contest. (The script is available to them on a screen at the back of the theater, and at various moments, portions of it are projected on the walls of designer Jim Findlay’s bland meeting-room set.)
The speech patterns decelerate, finally, about halfway through the 135-minute, intermission-less evening, in the scene in which Claudio (Greig Sargeant), condemned to death for fornication by the outwardly puritanical Angelo (Pete Simpson), pleads for his prim sister Isabella (Rinne Groff) to yield to Angelo’s advances and thereby save his life.
Yes, “Measure for Measure” is a tricky piece, as it comments on a society’s attempts to legislate morality and on a petty tyrant’s sexual hypocrisy. But with this production’s silly affectations — the cast faints dead away en masse, for instance, at the plot surprises — Elevator Repair Service turns a problem play into a merely ridiculous one.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Thomas Ostermeier. Translation by Marius von Mayenburg. About 2 hours, 45 minutes. Sold out through Saturday at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn.
Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. Directed by John Collins. About 2 hours, 15 minutes. $45-$80. Through Nov. 12 at Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., New York. Visit public theater.org or call 212-967-7555.