“Richard III” is one of Shakespeare’s more black-and-white plays, lacking the grayer subtleties in “Measure for Measure” or “Hamlet.” It’s a propaganda piece—Shakespeare toadies to Queen Elizabeth by portraying her grandfather, Henry VII, as a warrior saint who saved England from a deformed monster. In truth, both Richard’s physical issues and crimes were likely less than the Tudors claimed.
So you don’t come to “Richard III” for history lessons—you come for fun, and political violence, and some iambic pentametered scenery-chewing. It’s a portrait of a fifteenth-century serial killer, and you want a Richard you can both hate and secretly cheer for, since he’s the most interesting person in the room. Any production’s Richard has to be powerful enough to carry the show, and keep the audience awake during the confusing bits of “War of the Roses” exposition.
In the Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s first production since the pandemic, Cameron Feagin gives you everything you want in a Richard—smart, scheming, charismatic, funny and self-consciously theatrical. Feagin delivers the 400-year-old lines as though she invented them on the spot, making them fresh and modern while still maintaining their poetry. During the famous opening monologue, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” she seems to address each member of the small, storefront theater audience as if they were confidantes, hooking and holding them for the mischief ahead.
Casting a woman as Richard is a bold choice, which Feagin more than justifies. Having a woman play the part enhances the sense of Richard’s difference and separateness from the usual medieval image of a king. Aristotle described a woman as a deformed man, which influenced later Western thinkers. Richard calls himself “deformed, unfinish’d,” and Feagin delivers these self-imprecations with a bite that suggests that Richard doesn’t quite believe them, and will use society’s scorn as a spur for vengeance.
The small stage is outfitted with two benches and a set of gray stairs to represent a throne. The actors wear somber, modern clothing—Richard’s limp is created through the use of fabric knee braces. Khaki military vests represent armor. Adding dimension to the minimalist production is the clever use of sound by designer Sebby Woldt. In the Tower of London, for example, the echoing sound of dripping water suggests both the bleakness of the prison and Clarence’s dream of a death by drowning.
This is a tough play for a small space, and the limits create some problems. By restricting the physical interactions between the players, it makes an already talky play seem even more so. Because of this issue, some of the political back-and-forth could have been cut. Director Steve Scott has most of the actors playing two or more roles. It’s a strong cast, so this usually works, but sometimes you lose track of who’s-who.
These are, however, technicalities. Come out to see Feagin as a fantastic Richard III. He’s a seductive nihilist who sees politics as nothing but theater, someone utterly without principles who lies constantly for power. He’s the kind of political leader that modern audiences have come to know too well.
William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” Promethean Theatre Ensemble at The Factory Theater, 1623 West Howard, prometheantheatre.org. Through June 25.