Richard III is the third production of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s current season, themed “The Downfall of Despots.” It follows Exit the King, an absurdist comedy about an incompetent king who has run his country into the ground, and Julius Caesar, a look at the perils of rhetoric-loving, narcissistic politicians.
The parallels to the current political hellhole that we’re all dealing with right now are not hard to draw, and if there is anything at all to be grateful for in all of this, it’s that we’ve gotten some damn good theater as a result.
“Damn good,” though, doesn’t even come halfway close to describing how excellent Robert Walsh’s production of Richard III is, now playing at the Swedenborg Chapel in Harvard Square through March 11.
This is a no-frills production with the only bells and whistles being Shakespeare’s delectable dialogue and an arsenal of incredible performances, led by the excellent Steven Barkhimer as Richard, one of theater’s most engrossing villains.
Richard lies and murders his way to the throne in a long series of calculated steps, each moving him one step closer to becoming king. It is a whirlwind adventure that charts his swift rise and brutal downfall that features some of Shakespeare’s most accessible prose, and it handily satisfies both Shakespeare aficionados and those who may feel a bit intimidated by the thought of sitting through a dense Shakespearean history play.
Director Robert Walsh has cleverly and effectively spliced down this five-act monster—it’s Shakespeare’s second-longest play after Hamlet—yet its 2.5-hour running time feels barely half that. This production flies by, though it never does so at the expense of clarity. Richard III also succeeds because Walsh does not shy away from the play’s inherent comedy and playfulness—the play is far more amusing than it seems on paper.
Walsh’s staging, too, is energetic and utilizes every corner of the gorgeous, 117-year-old Swedenborg Chapel. The church’s stone altar—flanked by cold arches—effortlessly recalls a medieval castle, which adds a potent touch of authenticity. Deb Sullivan’s lighting goes a long way to enrich the natural atmosphere of the church, yet some bolder choices could have transformed the space even further (her work on last season’s Hamlet was astonishing). Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes are serviceably nondescript, yet they degrade the production’s overall visual impression.
And this cast. Oh, this cast.
Five of the six cast members quadruple and quintuple up on roles, yet the individual characterizations of each remain distinct and impressive. In particular, Jennie Israel and Paula Plum are transfixing, though Michael Forden Walker—particularly as Clarence and Buckingham—seemed less invested than the others. And with his masterful performance as Richard, Steven Barkhimer reminds us why he is one of Boston’s best and most versatile actors.
Aside from the sheer entertainment of this Richard III, it remains especially memorable as a master class in acting that should not be missed by even the most casual theatergoer.
Now is this winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this riveting production at Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
RICHARD III. THROUGH 3.11 AT ACTORS’ SHAKESPEARE PROJECT AT THE SWEDENBORG CHAPEL, 50 QUINCY ST., CAMBRIDGE. ACTORSSHAKESPEAREPROJECT.ORG
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.