In his autobiography, Johnny Rotten cited an unlikely inspiration for his gnarly Sex Pistols persona—Laurence Olivier's performance in the title role of his 1955 film Richard III. Yet on closer examination, the linkage seems much less preposterous: Rotten's jeering, black-humored, crudely stamped beat-down of the rock-star image seems of a type with Richard's mordant, diabolical regent (while ensuring that you'll never hear "No Feelings" quite the same way again).
Bob Davis is no Johnny Rotten, but he clearly relishes the role of Richard in this Ten Thousand Things production. Slick in a black leather jacket, one arm hidden in a sling, one pants leg pinned to represent his character's physical affliction, Davis, from the onset, paints his particular version of Shakespeare's great villain. Leaning hard on lines about being denied front-door access to sex and power, Davis imparts Richard's conclusion with matter-of-fact logic: If this is the hand fate dealt him, there's no reason to expect him to be anything other than an utter bastard.
The main action concerns kingly succession following the battlefield triumph of the House of York. Assuming you're still awake after reading that last sentence, don't worry. There's one thing you need to know about the plot: There are four warm bodies standing between Richard and the throne of England. Bastardly behavior follows.
In this production's intimate setting, Davis is a blast to watch. His is a slimy, spry Richard, shooting insinuating glances at the audience, unleashing the ghost of a smirk when his character embarks on various insincerities, and doing a little jig of joy when left alone onstage with his schemes progressing apace. Shawn Hamilton is dry and wary as Lord Buckingham, wryly enjoying Richard's wickedness while casting his lot with him (and making sure not to turn his back on him).
Director Michelle Hensley employs an all-male cast, as in Shakespeare's time, which presents a unique sort of friction that enlivens the show. Richard Ooms storms through a scene as the widowed Margaret, launching a catalog of invective and curses against the House of York, while Jim Lichtscheidl as Lady Anne is haunted and appalled when Richard tries to seduce her, quite literally, over her husband's dead body. Craig Johnson reprises the role of the Duchess of York, Richard's mother, which he played in a Starting Gate production of the play in 2005; bent and icy, he conveys both royal privilege and a mother's disgust for her offspring's bloodthirstiness.
Each actor is called on to play more than one role, and Kathy Kohl's understated costumes save the audience from losing its moorings. When the players play women, they wear hoops to signify Elizabethan dresses. The men are done up in combinations of black and gold, a timeless look that allows the play to live in its era without resorting to full dress.
When Richard's coronation comes around, Davis delivers it with a hint of sickly weariness—a moment of triumph, yes, but also part of Richard's all-around program of delivering an upraised middle finger to the world at large. Richard's crown is then quickly besieged, with a scene of the regent haunted the night before battle by those whom he's done in, followed by the standard sword clattering, lusty screaming, and simulated carnage.
These final scenes are always problematic in a small theater, because they lack bite for an audience weaned on the cinema. Here they're done with sufficient gusto but feel perfunctory (perhaps because of the effort to trim a play that often lasts three hours by a full 45 minutes). None of this, though, diminishes this taut and evocative study in evil. There's a movement afoot in England to rehabilitate Richard as an able, pragmatic king, but that's a bit like saying Johnny Rotten may have been just a clever man who enjoyed winding people up. The illusion, the rottenness, is so much richer.