The Setup: Shakespeare's first great success contains his first great character. The playwright wastes no time on reflection as he gets to the end of his long-running War of the Roses saga. This is straightforward narrative, sharp as a knife edge, as the deformed, unloved Duke of Gloucester, described by various characters as spider or toad, warns us (from the very first scene) of his nefarious intentions to be king. Simply stated, he will kill anyone who stands in his way. The remainder of the play is our witnessing of his will as the bodies pile up, until Richmond -- a forebear of Elizabeth I, therefore a most worthy Tudor ancestor -- stops the slaughter and slays the villain. But until then, what a villain! There's no one like him to be found anywhere in drama, and not many like him since. He takes such glee in his malevolence that he can woo a widow who spits in his face, turning on the charm until he beats her down. He schemes and uses other people's vanities to destroy them. He's fascinating. And so human.
The Execution: Director Jack Young, with this vivid telling from the University of Houston School of Theatre & Dance, obliges the Bard with non-stop action. Stefan Espinosa gives Richard a rock star's glam twinkle, as light on his feet as an amoral Astaire. He cajoles with evil conviction and can smoothly lard a victim with oily flattery so they become ripe for roasting. Espinosa's adversaries, no match as characters, match him as actors, and they all give notable, revealing performances. Amelia Hammond, as Elizabeth, who sees her two sons and heirs to the throne viciously assassinated on Richard's orders, gives this clever queen a regal bearing that suits her. Her battle of wits against Richard as he maneuvers to marry her surviving daughter is one of this play's most lively scenes. Dylan Paul, as confederate Buckingham, is full of traitorous, manly bluster; Melissa Graves, as duped Anne, is righteous fury turned defeated resignation; Lauren Ballard, as prophetic old Queen Margaret, isn't nearly old enough to spout such curses, but she spouts them convincingly; Bobby Labartino, as hired killer Tyrrell, would be a proud addition to any godfather's goon squad. The production pays its respects to pop iconography (video screens on the parapets) while using telling medieval touches (costumes and gothic arches) to remind us where we are.
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(Through November 7. Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, Entrance #16 off Cullen Blvd., 713-743-2929. Tickets here.)