Shakespeare's magnificently malignant spider, the Duke of Gloucester, a.k.a. the soon-to-be Richard III, as embodied by the equally magnificent Guy Roberts, scuttles gleefully across Main Street Theater's Chelsea Market stage spewing evil in his wake. The splash he makes is pure acid. No one is spared the scarring.
In Mr. Roberts's punk-gothic, evocative take on Richard III, a co-production with his own Prague Shakespeare Festival, one of the Bard's most popular and accessible works blazes and burns with terrible fury. The heat is startling, inexorable, and impossible to escape and it all starts with Roberts.
As wicked Richard who slays anyone unfortunate enough to step in front of his path to the throne, Roberts is not only wickedly good, he's phenomenal. It's a defining portrait in evil. His legs encased in braces, he uses two crutches with powerful agility, and his "crookback" stoops him so low that he must move fitfully on the balls of his feet. His hair is matted and greasy, his hands gloved in black. His imposing infirmities don't impede him in the least. He swivels swiftly on one crutch as a pivot to confront the unsuspecting; he gallops across the stage, as if on four legs, an alien insect ready to spring; and when he marches to take the empty throne, he hobbles unaided with an arrhythmic gait. Will this malevolent charmer make it? You bet your ass he will.
What makes Richard so fascinating, then as now, is our total complicity in his evil. In Shakespeare's brilliant innovation, Richard tells us directly what he wants and how he's going to get it. And then we watch as he does exactly as promised. A master manipulator, he employs lies, flattery and plain old misuse of power in his upward rise, while the bodies fall behind him with sickening thuds. Like staring at a grisly car wreck, we can't turn away. He has such gruesome fun being such a bastard, how can we not shamefully admire his implacable gall? The baddest guy in the room, he's surrounded by toadies and cowards, or women who see his iniquities but have no power to stop him, so his heartless march to ultimate control needs dark comedy to keep us sane. As Shakespeare intended, his outrageous villainy mesmerizes completely and drags us along, unwitting accomplices.
Roberts plays this flawlessly, addressing patrons directly and seeking our permission before he does his dastardly deeds. He wheedles and spins his web with finely tuned diction and a most natural way with Shakespeare's language. Every line is etched with precise intention. Shakespeare has never sounded so easy to understand. With those crutches as the best props of all, he's the most physical of Richards, never in one place for too long, except when finally ensconced on his throne that he is loathe to leave. His eyes are alive. He is, as actors say, "there." This is acting -- Shakespearean or otherwise -- of the highest order. Roberts grabs us, shakes us with a creepy sexiness and never lets go.
Except for a few minor roles, the other actors are exceptional, too, as they "speak the speech trippingly on the tongue," as dupes, foils and victims. Deftly playing off Roberts, they bring the sordid Plantagenet court richly alive. Especially effective are Shannon Emerick as proud Elizabeth, brought low when Richard murders her two young princes; David Wald as opportunistic Buckingham; Seán Patrick Judge as Clarence, who repents too late; Rebecca Green Udden as regal and grave prophetess Queen Margaret, whose mad curses come shockingly true; Rutherford Cravens as blustery Lord Chamberlain Hastings, who Richard cuts down to size; and Jared Doreck, lithe and lean like elven Legolas from Lord of the Rings, as Richmond, heir to the throne, who will reign as Henry VII. He cuts Richard down to size on Bosworth field.
The goth production soars with its own special wicked wit using contemporary touches that cast a startling immediacy to the War of the Roses. Cell phones, live video broadcasts and, best of all, clever parodies of TV political ads are interspersed throughout as Richard makes his unstoppable move to the top. Onto Ryan McGettigan's minimum grid of a set, images are projected -- falling snow, an abstract of Richard's coat of arms, distorted patterns to mirror Richard's paranoia -- but often the pictures fall upon the actors when they stand too close to the screens. A simple refocusing of the projector, or repositioning of the actors, would remove the distracting images off their expressive faces.
Margaret Crowley's pastiche costumes consist of Jonas Brothers vests with ties or shark-skin suits for the men; basic black medieval garb for Richard; leather mini and ankle-strap stilettos for widowed young Queen Anne (Crystal O'Brien), who Richard woos and wins in one of Shakespeare's most adroit seduction scenes; and antique gowns for the older women. This mismatch works and keeps Richard, in somewhat more period look, separate from the others, yet gives the overall production a hip, unfussy look.
Although an early play of the Bard's, Richard III (c. 1591) is mighty Shakespeare's unrivaled genius at full swing. The longest play until Hamlet, it is judiciously abridged here, as it has been since its premiere, and runs at full gallop. Three hours, with intermission, fly by. With a wondrous creation as satanic Richard to hold us in thrall with his hypnotic, deadly sting, imbued by Roberts's superlative performance and abetted by an equally superior supporting cast, time is majestically suspended. This is magnificent theater.
Shakespeare's ebony-tinged black comedy of a history play runs through May 13 at Main Street Theater's Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. Purchase tickets online at the company's website or call 713-524-6706. Prices start at $12.