Purists may arch an eyebrow, but Strollers Theatre's Richard III (running through Nov. 25 at the Bartell Theatre) presents a strong case for the performance of abridged Shakespeare. While the framework of Shakespeare's play is untouched - a greedy nobleman systematically destroys everyone who stands in his path to the throne, decimating the royal house of York and bringing about his own bloody downfall - the production's accelerated pace and modernized context give Strollers' Richard a brutal and haunting power.
In this sleek, distilled version, characters are inventively combined, courtly gossip is pared down to a minimum, and the many murders that Shakespeare reveals in dialogue are now played out before the audience in graceful and eerie pantomime. Though the program proclaims the setting to be "London - anytime," the show seems to borrow its esthetic from the 1995 Ian McKellen film, which transported the War of the Roses to 1930s Europe. Strollers' production employs the same suggestion of Fascism, echoed loudly by the striking red and black set designed by director Leo Cooper. Evocatively lit by Phillip Koenig and accompanied by cinematic music throughout, this Richard III combines elegance and terror in every element.
And the cast could hardly be better. Under Cooper's direction, the large ensemble handles the play's complexities with assurance. Erik J. Hughes, as the doomed Clarence, delivers a transfixing monologue. Matthew Winston makes a treacherous Buckingham, and Brian Belz, as the assassin, pulls off the mannerisms of a split personality.
But the show owes much of its power to the skill of lead actor William Bolz. Bolz's Richard is less an icy mastermind than a manipulative panderer, turning away from his machinations to beam with astonished delight at his audience. Layered with the doomed king's growing fear and paranoia, Bolz's interpretation does justice to one of Shakespeare's richest characters.