COURTESY TERESA WOOD
COURTESY TERESA WOOD

There’s something perversely appropriate about performing “Richard III” — one of William Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most political plays — just a block from the Capitol Building. Shakespeare’s Richard, a devious, evil, masterful politician, would certainly give the men and women of the Hill a run for their money.

“Richard III,” playing at the Folger Theatre until March 16, focuses on one of England’s most controversial kings. At the play’s beginning, he’s merely the brother of the newly crowned king, their family having just won the throne at the end of a long war. Richard (Drew Cortese) is the ugly duckling of his three brothers — crippled and generally considered the outcast — but his eyes are on revenge and the throne. He manipulates the tensions of the court in order to get what he wants. Where Richard differentiates from the typical American congressman (well, hopefully) is that he isn’t afraid to murder people in order to get what he wants. At least, that’s the way Shakespeare paints him, though historians have argued for centuries as to whether that portrait is accurate.

Shakespeare hasn’t written a story that is easy to perform convincingly. The audience needs to both love and hate Richard in order to be invested in the story, and have some grasp of what all the court politics are about. If one focuses too much on that second task — whose allegiances are with whom at any moment, what the character’s back stories are — the story becomes a little incomprehensible. I could tell that the audience was getting caught on details; I’ve never seen so many people look at the program in the middle of a show to try to remember which character is related to whom.

But loving and hating Richard? It’s easy to do that while watching the Folger’s production. Cortese’s Richard is charming from the play’s beginning, drawing the audience into his plot. You want to hate him, but every time he smiles at you, you feel as if you are in on his twisted secrets, for better or for worse. He’s undeniably charismatic and charming, in spite of every awful atrocity he commits.

The bold move that Folger took in staging the production meant that Richard really is smiling at you. The stage has been moved to the center of the room, creating a theater in a circular set up. Richard frequently goes to the sides of the stage, standing next to the audience and making faces at them, while those on stage cope with the havoc he’s raging. It’s a dynamic and fascinating set-up.

The innovative set-up makes the show feel more intimate, which was clearly the director’s intent. The director, Robert Richmond, wrote in his notes in the program: “By moving the action to the center, you, the audience, now occupy the same space, share the same oxygen, and are complicit to the decision of a serial killer.”

The cohesion of the play is also enhanced by the costuming; the men are all dressed in black, with gold chains and long jackets. They feel like a mob, putting out hits on people, their ranks impenetrable. The audience becomes the public that stands by and watches.

The other really interesting thing about the stage itself is the series of trap doors on the stage that serve as graves for Richard’s many victims. It increases the ghoulish, wicked energy on stage, contributing to an image of a world of danger and curses and ghosts.

Admittedly, “Richard III” can be a confusing play, partly because of its historical context. The play comes at the end of Shakespeare’s consecutive history plays that tell the story of the War of the Roses, an epic battle between the Lancasters and the Yorks. Many of the play’s characters made appearances in “Henry VI Parts 1-3.” But it would be wrong to go into this play with the main goal of understanding medieval British politics. Put aside all curiosities as to who hurt whom and when; you can find that on Wikipedia later.

Instead, get wrapped up in the story. It’s the story of a man who will do anything for power. It’s the story of women who would do anything to stop him. It’s a story of people who try to balance virtuous living with the desire for control, but often don’t realize that they’ve swung too far one way until it’s too late. That’s a story that is as relevant today as it was 422 years ago when Shakespeare first put it on a page. Folger’s production, perfectly capturing the dark and corrupt nature of this tragedy, is sure to pull you into this demonic Shakespearean world.

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