Ah, Richard, that wheedler without equal. He makes the ladies swoon (or at least look a little sick) and makes the men drop dead. (Really. Dead.)
When your own mother calls you a toad — and has to get in line to do so — it might be time to think about reordering your priorities.
Old Globe Theatre Shakespeare Festival
When: Runs in nightly repertory with “As You Like It” and “Inherit the Wind” (check with theater for specific dates); all performances are at 8 p.m. Through Sept. 29.
Where: Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: Approximately $15-$85.
Phone: (619) 234-5623
But that’s the thing about this creep of a king — particularly as played by the masterfully guileful, gleefully guilt-free Jay Whittaker in the Old Globe Shakespeare Festival staging of “Richard III.”
Shame is like a foreign language to Whittaker’s Richard, and he seems genuinely perplexed when Lady Anne (a fiery Vivia Font) spits at him over the murder of her husband.
Why, he was only doing her a favor, he protests, to “help thee to a better husband.” (Namely, himself.)
Whittaker’s performance is the spellbinding highlight of a show that boasts strong work by other actors but can feel sluggish at times, and even a little at war with itself.
Lindsay Posner, the production’s distinguished British director, has reset the story from the 15th century to nominally modern times, in a place that’s still England but has visual and musical references to the Middle East.
With its intricate web of familial and factional relations (and all the bad blood among them), and its complex historical context in the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors, “Richard III” is among the toughest Shakespeares to stage.
It’s a given that this’ll be a long evening, but some scenes — particularly of the machinations after Richard has his brother George killed in the first act, and the preparations for war in the second — feel a little short on spark.
And while returning fest artist Deirdre Clancy’s costumes are as splashy as ever, they can come to seem at odds with Ralph Funicello’s evocative set, which is dominated by concrete monoliths covered with graffiti and (later) comically grandiose murals depicting the king with a corona of warheads.
Although both scenery and clothes take on a gilded color scheme that effectively suggests the self-indulgence of the royals vs. the suffering of the citizenry, Richard’s glittering jumpsuit seems more “Star Wars” than Arab Spring.
Whittaker tromps through this all with an icy self-assurance, the brace on his lame leg making every stride seem cannily like a goose-step. No hunchback for this actor, although his pained, raspy voice suggests a malevolent presence strangling him from the inside.
When we first see Richard, he’s romancing the apoplectic Anne while pitching snide asides to the audience and marveling at his own audacity.
“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?,” he gloats after she unaccountably agrees to take up with him.
She’s just the first of a series of women to be appalled by his gall over the course of the play. Robin Moseley has an outstanding and volcanic turn as the exiled Queen Margaret, who sneaks back into England to warn of the menace Richard represents (although she’s mostly ignored).
Later, in one of the show’s most tense and affecting scenes, Dana Green (playing Queen Elizabeth) strikes multiple, beautifully nuanced notes of incredulity, as Richard seeks advice on courting her daughter — his own niece.
This is after Richard has had her two boys (played with admirable poise by the young Jonas McMullen and Aidan Hayek) imprisoned in the tower and then killed to clear his path to the throne. (The same fate has befallen George earlier, in a scene that effectively blends humor and horror.)
By the time his mother, the Duchess of York (portrayed powerfully by Deborah Radloff) lays into him, half the royal court has reconvened in the graveyard. That point is emphasized when the spirits of Richard’s many victims rise from below the stage to curse him, in a scene that toes the line between ghostly and hokey.
Posner’s production is well served by the busy contingent of student actors from the joint Globe/University of San Diego grad program, with strong work by Radloff, Adam Daveline, Jonathan Spivey and others. And such pros (several of them fest veterans) as Robert Foxworth, Jacques C. Smith and Charles Janasz bring heft to the saga.
Lindsay Jones’ sound design adds marrow-rattling drama to the climactic battle scene, in which Richard famously can’t trade for a ride to save his life.
You can hardly blame a horse for scorning him.