The theater world is full of Richard IIIs quipping, posturing, lying and murdering their way through thickets of bodies to the English crown. The role is catnip to actors because it's juicy and bigger than life, and the bloody monsters of twentieth-century history — Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Augusto Pinochet — have lent such resonance to the idea of absolute evil. Perhaps the quintessential Richard III was created by Laurence Olivier for the 1950s film: glossy and seductive, absolutely certain of his power, peering sideways at the camera, lewd and almost winking as he takes the audience into his confidence and persuades them to accompany him on his corpse-strewn joyride.
Nigel Gore plays the role very differently for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's Richard III, and his interpretation makes the play interesting and new. It's not just that Gore is jovial — lots of Richards are, though they'll usually tip us off pretty broadly to the malignity that lurks beneath — but he's almost clownishly so, as well as proletarian, harmless-seeming and anything but kingly. There's no magnificence to this man's evil, though the extent of it makes us gasp, and he's vulgar in the most undignified and unexpected ways. When he confronts Lady Anne as she stands over the coffin of her father-in-law — whom Richard III himself has killed — she exclaims that his presence has caused the dead man's wounds to bleed anew. So he touches one to check. When she spits in his face, he tastes her spittle. Setting up the death of onetime ally Hastings, he pops on stage with a toothbrush in his mouth. He bounces one of the little princes he plans to have murdered on his back like a goofy energetic uncle, and when co-conspirator Buckingham asks after Richard's coronation for the earldom he's been promised, Richard takes the man to the ground in a clumsy but vicious scuffle.
Another revelatory performance comes from Mare Trevathan as Elizabeth, who becomes queen when Richard's brother Edward ascends to the throne at the beginning of the play; her subsequent widowhood puts her entire family in danger. (Edward's death is the only natural one in the play.) Elizabeth's oldest son, a mere boy, is next in line for the throne, so Richard has him murdered in the Tower of London along with his younger brother, having by this time also taken care of a trio of other relatives. I've seen a lot of productions of this play, and in all honesty don't remember much of past Elizabeths beyond a vague impression of someone sweeping around sadly in a long dress — but Trevathan packs one hell of a wallop. Her Elizabeth is smart and tough, and the only character who's a match for Richard. She may be half-crazed by grief, this woman, but she'll find a way of protecting her daughter from the evil king. Elizabeth is part of a chorus of angry and lamenting women who have lost loved ones to Richard's sword (this aspect is well-handled by director Tina Packer), and the lamentations of the other women are presented as largely ritualistic. But Trevathan is so full of feeling and passion that she kicks every scene she's in into high gear.
Other notable performances come from Stephen Weitz, who, as Richard's other brother, Clarence, puts up a very lively fight before being drowned in a cask of Malmsey wine, and Josh Robinson as Hastings, striding cockily and unaware toward his own execution.
Richard III is early Shakespeare, full of color and action, and you can see the linguistic brilliance, energy and inventiveness of the text in the many epithets hurled at Richard: "lump of foul deformity," "hedgehog," "poisonous hunch-backed toad," "elvish marked, abortive rooting hog." Minimally cut for this production, the play does make for a longish evening, but some of the action that tends to get cut in other productions remains, making the plot richer and thicker. There's also a lot of originality and interest in Packer's direction: When Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, curses him — "Bloody thou art and bloody will be thy end" — she's still rocking him tenderly in her arms.