After tackling Hamlet and Richard II head-on for Classic Stage Company, Michael Cumpsty turns in another muscular performance as that consummate Shakespearean villain, Richard III. Although reviled as a venomous “toad” and creeping “spider” by his victims in “Richard III,” that foul monster is shown proper appreciation for his fine mind in this well-articulated production, co-directed by Cumpsty with a.d. Brian Kulick. But alas, intelligence is not all, and, without some hint of the self-loathing that motivates him, Richard loses his subtlety as a villain and his evil deeds, their psychological complexity.
One benefit of having Cumpsty calling the shots is that the entire company does its respectable best to match his flawless diction and the brainy reading he gives the text. Even supporting players — whose spoken roles are secondary to their primary function of raising and lowering the grand chandeliers symbolizing the glittering kingdom after which the rapacious Richard lusts — speak their lines with a keen awareness of where they are, what they’re saying and what those words mean.
The cues all come from Richard, the fiendishly ambitious Duke of Gloucester who slowly works his way through the English court of the ailing King Edward IV (Philip Goodwin), betraying, discrediting and murdering whoever stands between him and the throne. Cumpsty attacks the role with enormous relish, fairly smacking his lips over those juicy soliloquies in which he gleefully apprises the audience of his wicked — and wittily expressed — plans for his unsuspecting enemies at court.
The unwelcome surprise of the production is that it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to share Richard’s delight in the actual execution of his deeds. Given the crystal clarity with which his plans have been laid out, the gullibility of his innocent victims is almost too much to bear.
Oana Botez-Ban’s ill-conceived costumes are one negative tip-off to this failure. There is, after all, something to be said for period dress, which provides those fussy laces and ruffles that characters can manipulate like prayer beads to indicate thought. But there is no way to look contemplative in these shapeless bags of fuchsia, magenta and other electrically charged colors, which reduce to cartoon figures even an intelligent player like the Duke of Buckingham (the robust Michael Potts, doing his defiant best to appear dignified in livid gold).
In these hideous get-ups, the female thesps in the company have a clear edge over the men, possibly because women are more accustomed to the idiotic vagaries of fashion. Even in a blue gown of retina-searing intensity, Maria Tucci is never less than regal as the long-suffering Queen Elizabeth. Judith Roberts lifts her swan neck and holds her own head high as the proud Duchess of York, mortified to be the mother of such a fiend as Richard.
And even though poor Queen Margaret is almost swallowed up in a ghastly military greatcoat (with medals, for God’s sake), Roberta Maxwell just hits her mark and lets it rip. Fairly shaking with fury, she spits out her curses with such intensity she becomes pure white heat.
Interestingly, the show pulls itself together in the second act, when the peacock colors are put away and everyone who is still alive comes out to fight in serious dark leather. But the costumes are hardly the cause, only the symptom, of uninflected performances — including Cumpsty’s.
For all his brilliance at depicting the profound cunning of Richard’s mind, his portrayal leaves no room for the even more profound self-loathing that accounts for the atrocities he commits. Were it not for the modest hump on his back to suggest his infernal nature, this monster would be just too perfect to fool anyone.