Shakespeare populated his plays with a cavalcade of mad, mixed-up, thoroughly human characters who are an ongoing gift to actors able and willing to dive into their depths. The latest offering as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival features one of the messiest – the treacherous schemer Richard III, who is deformed in both body and soul.
This production shows how such a singular character can prove an exhilarating, galvanizing force, particularly with the dark and adept Andrew Platner in the title role. But it also points out one of the dangers of building a long and complex plot around only one compelling guy. Few of the other 16 players in director James Alexander Bond's cast manage to create a portrayal forceful enough to make a strong impression. The result is that much of the context for Richard's nefarious rise and rapid fall gets lost in the somewhat indistinguishable background.
An actor who stands out is Alexander Sapp. He plays the Duke of Buckingham, the one nobleman who realizes that Richard has designs on England's throne currently held by his sickly brother, Edward (Doug Jones). Richard plots to have all the obstacles to his ascendency removed, mostly via murder, including his pre-teen princeling nephews. All along, Buckingham paints a portrait to the commoners of Richard as a modest, pious supplicant with more interest in prayer than power. The scene in which Buckingham choreographs Richard's coronation over the villain's fake protestations is a humorous highlight.
Sapp gives Buckingham a jaunty, amused countenance that serves as an entertaining counterpoint to the single-minded intensity of Platner's Richard, an intensity that only grows as his grip on the crown crumbles in the second act. Traditionally hunchbacked but played here as just having a bum leg, this Richard has a dynamic physicality that Bond enhances by having Platner regularly roam the aisles of the Agecroft Hall courtyard where the production is staged. Though he's hobbled, this is clearly a dude best not taken lightly.
There are other vibrant scenes that point to an assured director at the helm. The murderers sent to dispatch Richard's first obstacle, his brother Clarence (Jonathan Hardison), have a darkly comic banter about whether to do the deed. Late in the action, ghosts of those he's murdered haunt Richard and bolster his rival, Richmond (Alex Miller), in a spooky bit of stagecraft.
But the import of many other turning points in the plot gets muddled while the sheer number of bodies starts piling up. The women associated with the power players – Edward's Queen Elizabeth (Molly Hood); Richard's mother, the Duchess of York (Jacqueline O'Connor); and Lady Anne (Laura Rocklyn) – unfortunately devolve into a chorus of interchangeable malcontents.
The production's technical elements are solid, with Emily Price's costume design including many sumptuous period outfits. B.J. Wilkinson's lighting design is overly bright for the outdoor setting, as evidenced by the cloud of insects hovering over the crowd.
Naked villainy can be plenty enthralling, and "Richard III" has several stirring moments. But the wicked king would shine even darker against a brighter background. S
"Richard III" plays at Agecroft Hall in the Windsor Farms neighborhood through Aug. 3. For tickets and information visit henleystreettheatre.org.