Opening mere days before the climax of one of the most contentious elections in American history, Bare Theatre‘s production of a Shakespeare dramatization of some pretty nasty historical politics helped put a few things in perspective. No major political candidate this election has killed most of their family in the pursuit of power – perhaps for this we should be grateful, as we can find egregious precedence in Richard III.

The contextual perspective provided by reading through the entirety of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses tetralogy is tedious, but enriching – as long as one can keep the cast of characters straight. It is much more exciting to see the plays produced live; in this respect, Raleighites have been quite lucky of late. Bare Theatre recently presented a condensed version of the three Henry VI plays, prequels to the historical events of Richard III. Partially because four of the actors played the same characters as in the Henry VI production, the essential backstory of Richard III was brought to the foreground in the minds of both performers and audience members.

Lucinda Danner Gainey directed both productions, and her continuity of vision across different works had both advantages and disadvantages. While the apocalyptic look to the costumes and set appeared to have enhanced the action in the previous production, it was not as well suited to Richard III. An apocalyptic society is generally associated with the total breakdown of social structures, but the principal mechanism of action in Richard III is political manipulation – for which a socio-political structure is a necessity. A strictly dystopian approach highlighting moral breakdown within society might have helped maintain the elusive partisan tension so essential to this plot.

Even so, the makeup and costumes were visually compelling, with a muted color palette drawing attention to shape and texture. The distinctive look of each character also helped with the challenge of keeping so many different people straight, especially when several roles share the same names (Edward, anyone?) and some actors are double or triple cast. The gag of Ratcliffe collecting the weapons of each victim was a nice touch of dark humor; it made keeping track of Richard’s body count – 12, for those of you interested – a little more exciting.

In the title role, Seth Blum took a sardonic, petty, and somewhat playful approach to this mountain of a character – much like a tabby playing with a mouse, or as one might imagine Dustin Hoffman approaching the role. He frequently elicited laughs from the audience with clever deliveries and timing, while also giving some insight to the psychological fragility that becomes especially evident in the last scenes of the play. The portrayal was a little short on pure evil, so the vitriolic curses heaped upon this “lump of foul deformity” did not seem truly merited. A little more sheer malice may have given the role more weight and staying power.

Rebecca Blum‘s Queen Margaret nicely balanced creepy, crazy, and vengeful; she gave the role a “bag lady” touch that was disturbing and effective. Aneisha Montague played multiple smaller roles with force and variety. Other notable performances included those by Chloe Apple (Catesby) and Benji Jones (Ratcliffe), both providing touches of light and dark comedy.

The dark horse, however, was Maggie Lea’s stellar performance as Queen Elizabeth. She paced the emotional transformation of her character masterfully. Elizabeth is a difficult role – cold and controlling in the first act, turning to utter despair and grief, and then finding her voice of judgement when confronting Richard before the final battle. Lea crafted the turning point when Elizabeth begs Margaret to “teach me to curse my enemies” into the emotional climax of the production, although the standoff scene between she and Richard shortly after was a close second.

The cast as a whole had a few opening night jitters and missed words, but the pacing was patient without lagging and energy remained high throughout. The black box Sonorous Road Theatre provided an intimate setting that makes the violence and casualties of this play personal, and sometimes scary.

Richard III runs through Sunday, November 20, and the theater features very limited seating, so you should get tickets early. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.