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Theater Review: “Richard III” at Folger Theatre

Drew Cortese is chillingly magnetic as Shakespeare’s homicidal monarch in Robert Richmond’s production.

Drew Cortese stars in Richard III at Folger Theatre. Photograph by Jeff Malet.

Imagine Bram Stoker’s take on Richard III mixed with some Buffy influences and a little Sam Raimi, and you might come up with something similar to the Folger’s current production, running through March 9. More goth than gothic, the show, directed by Folger mainstay Robert Richmond, brings a sense of the supernatural to Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, with ghosts disappearing into the ground to an eerie soundtrack by Eric Shimelonis, and the titular villain (Drew Cortese) lingering in the shadows just offstage to watch as his grisly deeds go down.

The shaven-headed Cortese may seem too handsome to play Richard, that “lump of foul deformity,” but that’s pretty much the only complaint one could charge in his direction. From his opening soliloquy raging against his brother King Edward IV (Paul Morella) and his own physical inadequacies, Cortese paints a masterful portrait of psychopathic detachment, adopting a vulnerable affect to woo Lady Anne (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan) while simultaneously signaling his derision at her gullibility to the audience. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?,” he sneers. “Was ever woman in this humor won?/I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.”

Hampered slightly by a plot that’s complicated in a way only the history of medieval Britain can be, dramaturg Michele Osherow has nevertheless done good work cutting such a gargantuan play down to size. Navigating the intricacies of Richard’s unwieldy family tree aside, the action flows smoothly and the pace never falters. Morella is particularly electrifying as Edward discovers his brother Clarence’s (Michael Sharon) death, while a pas de deux between Cortese and Julia Motyka as Edward’s widow, Elizabeth, is riveting—she responding to him with the disbelief and vehement hatred one might expect when the murderer of one’s two sons asks to marry one’s daughter, and he seeming irritated and confused by her truculence.

If the show has a weak spot amid robust performances (even Holden and Remy Brettell are adorable as the Princes in the Tower), it’s the design elements, which can’t decide whether they want to be vintage horror, BBC drama, or The Matrix. The leather coat worn by Buckingham (Howard W. Overshown) is pure Morpheus, while Queen Margaret (Naomi Jacobson) writhes around in fury sporting wild gray hair and what appears to be a Maori face tattoo. Queen Elizabeth wears a leather corset with a red silk bolero and a feather collar, and when Richmond (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) starts to haunt Richard’s dreams he appears in a Darth Vader gas mask. Costume designer Mariah Hale obviously wants to incorporate modern influences, but Catesby’s (Sharon again) wraparound sunglasses and army fatigues just don’t make sense teamed with the stately gowns worn by Princess Elizabeth (Jenna Berk) and Lady Anne.

The most striking visual element of the show is the stage itself: Richmond and set designer Tony Cisek have converted the Folger’s theater into an in-the-round structure, so most of the audience sits on what’s typically the stage and the action plays out in the middle of the Elizabethan theater. (As usual, there are pop-up cameos from actors on the balcony and in the aisles, which adds to the general sense of spookiness.) While the set itself at first appears deceptively simple for Cisek, the plain rectangular platform is revealed to provide a series of trapdoors for the actors to appear and disappear from.

This is a show worth seeing for Cortese alone—the kind of Richard who’s uncomfortably charismatic wrenching the ring off his wife’s corpse before tenderly placing it on his own finger—and in the Folger’s small theater, the sense of being passively complicit in his actions is stronger than ever. Richmond’s Richard III is gratifying proof of how bracing and entertaining Shakespeare’s history plays can be, even if it isn’t exactly sure in which chapter of history it belongs.

Richard III is at the Folger Theatre through March 9. Running time is about two hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($30 to $72) are available via the Folger’s website.