SHAKESPEAREAN BLOOD SPORT Stacy Keach brings a comic touch to his performance of 'Richard III'

WASHINGTON — The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger's "Richard III" is an odd blend of blood bath and British music hall.

The music hall element derives from Stacy Keach's fascinating but highly idiosyncratic performance in the title role. Delivering his soliloquies almost like stand-up comedy routines, Mr. Keach portrays Richard as if he were the comic narrator of his own tragic story.


Denied many of life's pleasures because of his physical deformities, he takes pleasure in villainy instead. Conquest -- whether of women or the

throne -- is sport to him, and he exults in letting the audience in on each upcoming move.


Lurching around Derek McLane's metal, prison-like set, Mr. Keach grins and waves at the audience. Or, when he truly savors the outcome of a scheme, he raises his hands in delight, as if to say, "Voila!"

Mr. Keach made his previous Washington appearance as song-and-dance man Harry Van in "Idiot's Delight" at the Kennedy Center in 1986. In a sense, this is Harry Van as Richard III, despite the considerable physical change. (He plays Richard as a hunch back, with his leg in a brace and a glove covering his misshapen hand; in addition, the actor has shaved his mustache to reveal a scar from a harelip.)

Mr. Keach's ebullience is at odds with the gore that director Michael Kahn incorporates into the staging. When Richard bares his withered hand before condemning Lord Hastings to death, he shows a bleeding, cloven appendage, which he magnifies by plunging it into a pitcher of water. This is immediately followed by the slitting of Hastings' throat, which spurts blood like a fountain.

Mr. Kahn may have intended to create a graphic contrast between Richard's "sport" and its consequences. Instead, the stage blood is so excessive, it makes his heinous deeds seem ludicrous.

A more successful contrast is established between Mr. Keach's buoyant performance and the more straight-laced -- but no less intense -- interpretations of the other characters. Ted van Griethuysen is especially striking as Buckingham, the ambitious lord who plays Richard's second banana and mistakenly expects his gratitude. And Rosemary Murphy is eerily luminous as Margaret, widow of Henry VI. Witch-like in appearance and demeanor, she derives as much joy from revenge as Richard does from usurpation.

Regrettably, Lynnda Ferguson's Lady Anne is colorless, depleting the impact of the famed wooing scene. Francelle Stewart Dorn's Queen Elizabeth is more evenly matched with Mr. Keach's Richard, a situation Mr. Kahn reinforces by giving them an unexpectedly passionate embrace.

The production's final image emphasizes its disparate comic and grisly strains: Impaled and raised aloft on a pyramid of swords, Richard swoons, but before he dies, Mr. Keach gives the audience one last, defiant grin. It is a bravura performance in an iconoclastic production.

"Richard III" is at the Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger through Nov. 10; call (202) 546-4000.