by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Intiman Theatre
201 Mercer Street, Seattle, WA 98109/ (206) 269-1900

Reviewed by Jerry Kraft

An array of drums mounted on towers on either side of the stage, and another placed deep behind the cold, iron scaffolding of the harsh, imposing set provide an ominous and intimidating sense of unfeeling militarism. In the production's opening image, an unimpressive, misshapen Richard moves to the forestage, and his dark shadow rapidly grows to monstrous size against a blood-red curtain. Clearly, we are about to encounter the spreading blight of this immoral, ambitious man on a world unsettled and besieged.

Richard III is, of course, one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, and an irresistibly juicy role for an actor, but in this production Stephen Pelinski keeps Richard thoroughly human-scaled, and the great drama less about his own actions and intentions than about the effect of those actions and intentions on the society around him. As a result, there is a grandly individualized, complex society created on stage, creating fascinating and dimensional characters and giving a very human face to the politics of power, intrigue and brutality. Solidly cast and played throughout, the women in this production were particularly strong and affecting. With striking theatricality and powerful stagecraft, this production was beautifully balanced and engaging, convincingly fearsome in its portrayal of a world as chilling as the sound of steel on steel, as visceral as an open wound, as obscene as the murder of children for political gain.

Bartlett Sher, coming off his second consecutive Tony nomination for Best Director, has mounted a production that confirms the Intiman theatre's own just claim to the 2006 Tony for Best Regional Theatre. Impressive as Mr. Pelinski is in the title role, this really is one of those instances where the entire production is the real star. Every character speaks with conviction and clarity, and the theatrical gestures both large and small invariably clarify or accent the moment. The spectacle is impressive for its impact, not simply for its scale. The smaller stories of secondary characters are as affecting and authentic as Richard's own futile quest for a transient grandeur. The action rises to an invigorating climax, and the play's resolution has grace and stature, as well as sobering irony.

Mr. Pelinski gave a compelling performance, his lines beautifully spoken and his banal and ruthless personality as treacherous as a cornered serpent. A kind of royal serial killer, he has the sociopath's utter lack of conscience or sense of common humanity. The lives of others are simply his working expenses toward his acquisition of the throne. With the arrival of Hans Altweis as his final opponent, Henry, Earl of Richmond, we finally see by contrast the worthy nobility that should rightfully reign. Allen Fitzpatrick, John Pribyl, Lance McQueen and Timothy McCuen Piggee all gave excellent supporting performances. For me, however, the outstanding cast members in this remarkably well-balanced cast, were women.

Lenne Klingaman was especially vivid and well-crafted as Lady Anne, whose husband was killed by Richard and who, nonetheless, ends up marrying him, to her own ruin. I also appreciated the force and focus of Kristin Flanders as Queen Elizabeth. An actress who holds the stage in a big way, she brought great intensity and articulation to her lines. The estimable Suzanne Bouchard has a masterful control of the impassioned depth of the aggrieved mother Margaret, widow of Richard's victim, Henry VI. In her performance was something of the loss of every mother who has ever seen her children consumed by the hungers of war. Megan Cole, who plays the bereft mother of three murdered children, was overwhelming in her authority and depth. The sheer moral power of her tragedy, of her anger and loss and insistent anguish was astonishing.

In addition to being exceptionally well-directed and well-played, this was one of the most impressive physical productions I've ever seen at Intiman. The scenic and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind was stunning, all harsh edges and unfeeling scale, with levels and depths that emphasized the play's own dimensionality. Costumes by Elizabeth Hope Clancy blended royal stature with commonplace daily wear. A fine music and sound design by J. Steven White accented the shifting tone and action of the drama. Finally, the swordfight sequences, particularly in the last battle between Richard and Henry, was impressively expert and exciting.

"Richard III", with its explorations of self-justifying brutality and ruthless political ambition seems particularly relevant right now, and Bartlett Sher has certainly drawn our attention to that correlation, without being overtly political or editorial. What he's done is give us a riveting adventure in personal politics, in the drama of rulers and the ruled, and in the obligations of a society to stand up against immoral leadership when it drags that nation toward ruin. That's exciting theatre, deserving of awards, recognition, and our appreciative applause.

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