'Richard III' plays well on an Ellicott City hill

The title character in "Richard III" qualifies as the most evil villain in any of Shakespeare's plays, which is no small accomplishment. This 15th-century English monarch killed so many members of his immediate family in his ruthless quest to ensure that nobody else sat on his throne that it's difficult to keep the bloody score.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's muscular and mobile staging of "Richard III" places as much emphasis on Richard's violent deeds as on his equally volatile words. It may not be the most emotionally moving production of "Richard III" you'll ever encounter, but it's surely among the most literally moving.

Unlike the company's summer shows, which rely on a fixed stage set up outside the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, this fall production takes place at multiple locations both inside and outside the stabilized ruins of this 19th-century girls' school.

You may start to feel like a foot soldier yourself as theater staff members, operating with drill sergeant efficiency, tell the audience where to move next. Indeed, much of this production's running time ironically is devoted to the walking time it takes to get from one spot to the next.

Although some seating is provided at each spot, many audience members will have to stand and everybody will have to walk a good deal. The best consumer advice is to wear comfortable shoes. Also dress for cold weather, because it tends to get chilly on this hill high above Ellicott City — and especially during a lengthy play that will have you up there until almost 11 o'clock at night.

Staging "Richard III" in and around the Patapsco Female Institute is an atmospherically effective treatment of a history play that does, after all, take place in a royal setting in which Richard calls a stone castle home.

There is so much troop, er, audience movement throughout the evening that the short scenes occasionally seem choppy rather than smooth-flowing; and in terms of traffic management, the actors at the reviewed performance began several scenes before all of the audience members had made their way down dimly lit passages, through narrow doors, and into the next stone-walled chamber.

The dramatic experience is worth the extended walk, however, because this nasty, brutish and long play benefits from being seen at such close quarters.

Another thing that makes this "Richard III" notable is that artistic director Ian Gallanar has updated the setting to World War I. There are soldiers dressed in uniforms suitable for that 20th-century conflict; and other characters are outfitted in Edwardian-era suits and dresses. Barbed wire runs along some of the walls. The stage smoke billowing out of windows and across battlefields serves as a scary reminder of how mustard gas was used in that modern conflict. And when Richard goes into battle and famously cries out "My kingdom for a horse," it does not sound anachronistic considering the extent to which horses were used during World War I.

On a very local note, it also doesn't hurt that this former girls' school had other uses over the decades that included serving as a military hospital from 1917-1920.

All of this adds up to a bracing backdrop for Shakespeare's play. If anything, the production would benefit from having a few more uniformed soldiers and accompanying props. Just don't go to the extreme of instructing the audience to walk down a dark corridor for some direct experience with trench warfare!

Besides its striking environmental immersion, this invigorating production is notable for Vince Eisenson's spirited performance as Richard III. Shakespeare's text makes thematic connections between Richard's deformed personality and his physically deformed body; in that respect, it's exciting that British archaeologists recently unearthed what they believe to be Richard's bones and, yes, his spine is slightly curved.

Eisenson fortunately downplays the extreme hunchbacked stance that has made other actors in this role seem like prime material for a Mel Brooks parody, but this slightly built actor skillfully does give a sense of how a withered arm and unsteady walk set Richard apart from everybody else. This is crucial, because Richard comments upon how his deformity is psychologically isolating and the source of great bitterness. If standing up for himself means chopping off somebody else's head, well then so be it.

Eisenson's performance also is characterized by the wicked wit that Richard brings to his complicated, never-ending schemes. This king is disturbingly funny and just plain disturbed. Although it's a bit of a liability that this actor's sly interpretation of the character engenders more audience laughter than one normally encounters in stagings of "Richard III," at least the laughter has a nervous edge.

Other performances that stand out include Scott Alan Small as the Duke of Buckingham, Lizzi Albert as Lady Anne, Greg Burgess as Lord Stanley, and Ron Heneghan as the Duke of Clarence. They and others in the large cast ardently portray characters whose survival skills aren't always enough to guarantee they'll still be standing at the end. You'll also still be standing, which is a good thing under these violent circumstances.

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's “Richard III” runs through Oct. 28 at Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, 3691 Sarah's Lane in Ellicott City. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 6 p.m. Tickets are $15- $36. Call 410-313-8661 or go to www.chesapeakeshakespeare.com.

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