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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 75.0° F  Overcast
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American Players Theatre's Richard III revels in bloody ambition and glorious villainy
Melissa Graves and James Ridge in American Players Theatre's <i>Richard III</i>
Melissa Graves and James Ridge in American Players Theatre's Richard III
Credit:Carissa Dixon

American Players Theatre core acting company member James DeVita directs a stylish Richard III, in which Shakespeare gives us one of the most famous villains in theater: a man who manipulates all those around him by tailoring and twisting the truth to further his ruthless ambitions, methodically clearing his path to the throne by killing family members and trusted associates.

We are introduced to England's royal House of York as young Edward (Cristina Panfilo the star of Twelfth Night, again in drag) is crowned the Prince of Wales. Presiding over this solemn occasion are his parents, King Edward IV (Michael Huftile) and Queen Elizabeth (Colleen Madden), his grandmother, the Duchess of York (Sarah Day), siblings, uncles, and various other nobles. After years of strife between warring factions for the monarchy, there seems to be hope in the air, but we soon see the murderous machinations set in place by the king's brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (James Ridge), and the body count rapidly begins to rise. After murdering her husband (and earlier, her father), he sets his sights on Lady Anne (a tart tongued Melissa Graves).

Next on Richard's agenda is engineering the murder of his brother. the Duke of Clarence (John Taylor Phillips). This is the first in a series of executions performed coolly and clinically by Richard's henchmen (Eric Parks and Nathan Hosner). Clarence's execution in turn hastens the death of the King -- kudos to the makeup artists who made Huftile look like he was on the brink of death.

Seizing the opportunity he creates for himself, Richard sees to it that the Queen's brothers are disposed of, and launches a propaganda campaign to influence the public and those in power, receiving an assist from his loyal comrade, the Duke of Buckingham (David Daniel).

Pretending to be humble and pious, Richard becomes King after successfully planting doubts about young Edward's legitimacy. Despite being the heir's Lord Protector, he sees to it that the prince and his impish little brother (Marco Lama) are imprisoned in the Tower; however, there is still much work to be done to solidify his position, including more bloodshed and treacherous backstabbing.

Ridge chooses to downplay Richard's physical defects so we can really focus on his mind. He does have a lame arm and leg, forcing him to swing the left side of his body when moving, giving him a slightly simian gait. His features are gaunt and chiseled. There is no extra weight to get in his way. He often confides in the audience, essentially making them co-conspirators.

At first, Richard's outlandish manipulations seem almost magnetic in their boldness, moving in on the woman whom he has just made a widow, her husband's body not yet cold. He surprises even himself with this success and Ridge's zeal is palpable. Later when he has disposed of that wife, he decides marrying his young niece would be advantageous, and lays out his vile case to her mother (Ridge's wife in real life). The sparks fly as he hisses thinly veiled threats and she sees the depths of his depravity. At one point, an audience member muttered "what a psycho" under her breath following a particularly chilling moment from Ridge.

Tracy Michelle Arnold is stellar as the banished Queen Margaret. The play's moral compass, she lurks in the shadows, grey hair wild and wiry, eyes flashing and tongue ferociously settling scores by reminding all of the wrongs committed by their family (particularly Richard) and cursing all its members with hideous and bloody outcomes. Later, when her bold prophecy has come true, she chastises the grieving Day and Madden. This scene between the trio of women (compelling actresses all) who have been devastated by Richard is especially strong. Shakespeare's language is powerful and ripe with scathing insults.

An announcement prior to the play promised "considerable action in the aisles," and this was true. A raucous battle scene directed by Kevin Asselin offers plenty of violence, punctuated by grunting and clanging weaponry.

There were moments that I thought might be too slick and overwrought, but turned out to be effective as I reflect on the production. On the eve of battle, Richard is visited by the ghosts of his most brutal murder victims, each wearing red fabric blindfolds, tied in the back with long ribbons streaming down. Later, as he is dying, a procession of these same victims gather above him holding glowing candles that are snuffed out as his life ends.

Designer Takeshi Kata creates a solemn kingdom with slabs of stone and severe doorways, the monochromatic grey softened just a bit with dabs of gold around the edges. Rachel Anne Healy's rich costumes include elaborate uniforms for the men and women's gowns cut to fit beautifully. Healy helps us understand the characters, whether it's with the lavish feathered hat for young Edward or the oversize velvet and ermine robe that Richard dons when he ascends to the throne. This symbol of his position swallows him up, hiding his deformities and underscoring his dissatisfaction and utter lack of peace, even though he's finally achieved what he wanted.

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