The Mobile Shakespeare Unit performed its version of Richard III at prisons, senior centers and other nontraditional spaces before arriving at the Public Theater for its current brief run. Out of necessity, the production condenses Shakespeare’s five-act history play into 90 minutes and strips it raw, with limited props, minimal sets and lighting, and street clothes accessorized to conjure the characters: a crown here, a leg brace there. To help audiences sort out the convoluted royal relationships, the show provides a literal cheat sheet: a family tree painted on a bed linen. Every time our self-declared villain offs someone on his way to the throne, the name gets crossed out in blood-red paint.
This concept spotlights the acting, and it’s thrilling to watch the commanding Off Broadway stalwart Ron Cephas Jones attack the rich, complicated title role. His seduction of Lady Anne (Michelle Beck) over the corpse of her husband (whom Richard himself has slain) is horrifying—and kind of hot; when he kisses Queen Elizabeth after asking for her daughter’s hand in marriage, you’ll want to take a shower. But too often, the interactions seem superficial. Director Amanda Denhert has many members of the energetic company play multiple parts, which yields broad characterizations that clash with Jones’s nuanced performance. Like the twisted king himself, this Richard III is sometimes brilliant but also a little misshapen.—Raven Snook