Hump-backed, hateful, politically murderous Richard III is the most hideous of Shakespeare’s kings. Resentful of his physical deformities, Richard achieves his vengeful power by deceit, manipulation, and even the killing off of his young nephews. The Theater at Monmouth stages Richard III this summer under the direction by Dawn McAndrews, in a production that presents the dual treachery and tediousness of divided politics, and that suggests not Richard’s physical hump but his own self-loathing as his ugliest and most dangerous deformity.
The physique of this Richard III (Jake Loewenthal) isn’t particularly grotesque to look at — his hump and limp are evident but, at least initially, not especially exaggerated; his sling and leather leg brace blend reasonably well with his black-and-leather look; and, as embodied by Loewenthal, Richard is an attractive man, young and slim with an elegant, fine-boned face. His ugliness rises to the surface as his insecurities and vitriol do, in a carefully calibrated performance by Loewenthal: when his power is questioned or threatened, we see it in his bulging eyes and the twitching muscles of his face, in his good hand clutching the one in the sling, in how the curve of his hump suddenly deepens and sends him stumbling.
We also sense Richard’s inner repulsiveness by how others react to him at court, an environment that McAndrews’ cast makes thick with silent enmity. Richard is the cause of particular looks of disgust, rolled eyes, and even just disdainful amusement. At first, nobody takes Richard all that seriously. But what we see in the nobles’ faces evolves apace Richard’s rise, as their looks become nervous, alarmed, and finally horrified.
The court of King Edward (Bill Van Horn) is already a divided one. And on the show’s simple set of mottled white posts and beams, McAndrews stages many of the court scenes with a strikingly fraught stillness. As the ruler speaks, the most significant movement often happens in and between the listeners’ eyes. In fine, subtle performances, the ensemble presents these politicians as watchful, wary, and — at least before things go really off the rails — sometimes just wearily irritated. Such scenes give us a sense of not just how dangerous but how straight-up exhausting it is to play a role in a rancorous and chaotic court, how tempting it might become to follow someone going rogue.
Monmouth stages Richard III in a season honoring women, and the political power of these female characters lies in the realms of marriage, children, and curses. Symbolically, these women embody and bear the emotional legacy of the men’s political machinations — grief, rage, and vengeance that the cast portrays across a range of expression. Amber McNew’s Lady Anne, mourning her dead even as she is pursued by their killer, works her grief and anger like sinew, while King Edward’s widow Queen Elizabeth (Kedren Spencer) unleashes a wild, incredulous anger and fear for her children. The anguish of Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York (Janis Stevens), is severe and self-punishingly contained, as if she is eaten from within by having borne Richard. And when the banished Queen Margaret (a dotty-scary Maureen Butler) shows up with her slightly batty, wildly bitter curses, we see the emotional cost of so much dissembling and chaos at its far end.
As much of Richard III’s almost three hours involves the subtleties of the men’s politics, it’s a smart choice for McAndrews to amp up some almost-funny bits, which break up the strategizing without letting us forget the poisonous nature of this world. “Didst thou not kill this king?” rages Lady Anne at Richard. After a pause, Richard shrugs, half-smiles, and allows an off-hand “I grant ye,” as if a charming, sit-comic “My bad.” Van Horn’s King Edward IV has a droll Polonius-style scene at court, laboriously instructing various nobles of the rival houses to love each other. And when Richard tosses Hastings’ severed head to Hoban’s comically obsequious Mayor, the poor man spends Richard’s whole next speech nervously nodding, smiling, and trying to give it back.
The more power Richard achieves, the more his hump crumples him, the more sartorially grotesque he appears (crowned as he is in an obscene ruff of black feathers), and the more anxious, erratic, and paranoid he becomes. You can see the alarm in the eyes of his well-drawn yes-men Catesby (Bibi Mama) and Ratcliff (McNew), and in Stanley (a dexterous KP Powell), the man who dares to secretly work against Richard despite the ransoming of his son.
What drives Richard’s collaborators? Simple avarice, in the case of his key ally Buckingham (Marshall Taylor Thurman), who follows him despite knowing better and entertaining some semblance of a conscience. It’s in Buckingham, portrayed in an acute balancing act by Thurman, that we find the most pointed object lesson in the dangers of trusting an insecure narcissist, an erratic strongman who, as one noble puts it, “hath no friends but who are friends for fear.” As if any politician should still need reminding.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Dawn McAndrews. Produced by the Theater at Monmouth, in repertory, through August 18. Visit http://theateratmonmouth.org/.