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Director Alison C. Vesely's concept for Richard III at the Hilberry Theatre is curious. Granted, this is hardly the first time a production has gone the self-aware theater-qua-theater route, and the initial beats featuring a crew member voicing cues and the decidedly pre-show performers filing in and preparing for the spectacle are both well-executed and thought-provoking. (One potential instigator for the choice is the double-, triple-, and quadruple-casting required of a script with a body count higher than the Hilberry's student roster, and costume designer Christa Koerner adds a nod to the artifice by clothing each actor in a base layer of black, over which other elements are swapped in.) What's curious about this carefully detailed backstage perspective is that it largely disappears after the first scene. Fortunately, the show beneath the concept, helmed by a powerhouse lead performance, succeeds without any added layers.

Shakespeare's history of England's King Richard III follows a physically deformed member of the royal lineage bent on grabbing his family's power with both hands and at any measure, primarily by bumping off everyone whose claim to the throne might threaten his own dubious one. In the title role, Edmund Alyn Jones is a fascinating villain, full of energy and conniving, eager to level with the audience that even he can hardly believe his successes. Showing both physical and emotional mastery of the role, Jones's Richard is a dragging, smirking, frighteningly intelligent monster, somehow as appealing as he is contemptible. His desperate hunger for power, and his even more desperate need to keep his tenuous power once obtained, makes for a satisfying arc and buoys a long two acts.

In a horrific reversal, the people most endangered by Richard are those most inclined to trust him. His first victim is brother Clarence (Vanessa Sawson), whose onstage death at the hands of two magnificently characterized hit men (Andrew Papa and Christopher Ellis) touches on misplaced faith and murderers' remorse, so well portrayed that it essentially stands in for the same struggles in each subsequent, increasingly efficient execution. As Richard's ill-won wife Anne, Carollette Phillips is empathetically deadened by grief as she gives herself over to her sworn enemy. Matriarch Queen Elizabeth (Samantha Rosentrater) herself avoids the axe, despite seeing through Richard and openly disdaining him, but cannot stop the king from slaughtering her sons and heirs — the uncomfortable scene in which Richard's doomed nephews (undergraduates Alex Hill and Erin Hildebrandt, two of four performers borrowed from Wayne State University's Bonstelle company) try to childishly interact with their uncle is simply jarring. Complex family relationships and concordant politics are helpfully diagrammed in the program, but the breadth of Richard's plan to dispatch anyone in his way makes the thrust of the plot relatively easy to follow: identify threat, eliminate, repeat. The arcs of the king's closest supporters and advisers who come to understand his true nature and subsequently turn on him, most notably Alan Ball as Buckingham and Erman Jones as Stanley, help the audience prepare for Richard's ultimate downfall in the bloody and ravaging manner that seems to suit him best.

In an inspired bit of staging, Jacee Rohlck's coldly imposing set includes an array of chairs that represent the slowly emptying royal court; Vesely lightly treads back into the meta approach by having selected individuals watch the action from outside the scene, separate but engaged. The return of actors whose initial characters have been killed lends an uneasy feeling of Richard's victims sitting in judgment; it's less consistent and far less overt than the opening moments, but the menacing crowd on its own is effective. Theater-spanning battle scenes late in the play, choreographed by Michael Brian Ogden, are competently blended with the fast-moving, expository dialogue, although the sheer weight of the weapons give a sluggish feel to the combat itself.

Much as we like to toy with and revamp well-worn stories to keep them fresh, Shakespeare is marvelous on its own — this Richard III, and this Richard, are testament to that. Granted, the framework doesn't fit together, but the viewer should find plenty to appreciate in this brutal, slyly amusing terror of a story about a man who casts his lot in with evil just to see how high he can climb.


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