Richard was never like this!

Some Shakespearean play were born with problems. (The late, elusive comedies , for instance); some (to continue in a Shakespearean vein) achieve problems; and some (forsooth) have problems thrust upon them.

Among the last is at this moment "Richard III," in a remarkable production headed by Michael Moriarty as Richard, directed by Andre Ernotte, designed by Bill Stabile, and celebrating the American Shakespeare Theater's 25th season here at its handsome waterfront precincts. (The production moves to Washington's Kennedy Center in early September.)

I have hastened to name the three principals, because what they have crafted goes beyond mere Shakespeare's Shakespeare, beyond even actor's or director's Shakespeare, to become above all designer's shakespear. And I hasten to add that its problems are extremely "gifted" ones, with here and there impressive solutions.

Mr. Moriarty's basic scheme is to lift this twisted piece of history out of its 15th-century English ground and to replant it in some more Continental and perhaps Napoleonic soil of the early 19th. Ann Emonts' Empire costumes, Marc Weiss's deep-hued lighting, and Theodore Pappas' choreography all helped to make this vividly possible.

As does, to be sure, the best of the acting -- a considerable amount of which is Mr. Moriarty's. He has taken the slithering evil of Shakespeare's Richard (however unfair thatm may be to the original) and accented it with a kind of off-white skittishness rather than the more customary strokes of black. Just as the slight lurch in his walk hints sufficiently Richard's physical deformity, so his generally complaisant, whimsical manner needs only to be ruffled most of the time by shadows and tremors. Richard's line, "I smile, and murder while I smile ," cues him well, for a while.

The only murder he commits personally is an unscripted, gratuitous one; and seven of the other eight happen offstage. Yet as they gather momentum in bulldozing Richard's way to the throne, Mr. Moriarty responds briefly with obsessive, jabbing gestures, accompanied by an ominous crackling and a reddening of lights.

This is part of his avowedly "unified" approach to Shakespeare, orchestrating and intensifying the subjective meaning of the play in terms of tone, light, and movement. At certain moments it moves the experience toward the stylization of dance and opera -- a few Moriarty speeches take off from normal inflectin into a second or two of high-flown aria.

Then again, in an early ballroom scene, a string quartet mimes the fervent playing of Beethoven at stage center, the music itself coming and going but the ludicrous look of it drowning out the speeches anyway. (Yet when you think of it, how often have early Shakespeare and late Beethoven shared the same stage?)

Such devices are ingenious and gifted -- even at certain times inspired in their effect. If the medium actually werem dance, with music, then we could let go of Shakespeare's story and let Mr. Moriarity portray a murderous Napoleon, if he wishes. But the words are there, telling about English men and women tangled and drowning in the Wars of the Roses. The reading of them, too much of the time, is not only undistinguished but to a degree indistinguishable.

This is partly the result of casting which can most charitably be called capricious. (Viveca Lindfors, to give only one instance, offers a wildly distraught Margaret out of whose long torrential speech of prophesy a mere scattering of words and phrases could be understood).

But the big problem, again, is thrust on Shakespeare by the design transplant , the Napoleonizing of Richard. To cavort around history with one of the more time-detached comedies or tragedies may at times sharpen the projection of this play-wright, as Peter Brook showed with his "Midsummer Night's Dream." But "Richard III" is one of the plays that arem history, and it needs those particular English roots.

Undeniable, however, is the excitement to watch in superbly designed and evolving tableaux. Three episodes stay in the mind as superbly realized Shakespeare, actors' Shakespeare, with inspired casting.

One is the outrageous hypocrisy as Moriarty plays Richard playing religious devotee who shudders at the wordly idea of kingship. Another is Michael O'Hare as the Earl of Richmond, presiding over Bosworth Field as a kind of divine avenger. There is no real attempt to stage Shakespeare's bits and pieces of battle, but Shakespeare's lines are visually and vocally illuminated so as to clean and rinse the air. (One should probably overlook the post-mortem return of Richard at the final curtain.)

The third is just before the battle, and the most Shakespearean of all: the long scene of verbal duel between Richard and Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, mother of the two murdered princes and related to others among Richard's victims. Up to that point Robin Bartlett has just been filling her part in the picture as Elizabeth. But now, as Richard perversely proposes his marriage to Elizabeth's daughter, a spirited English Queen comes out against him on a great playwright's stage, speaking a great playwright's words, and all her actor's colors blazing.

Then we realize how much of even a young Shakespeare has been designed away from us, however intriguingly, and how good it is to have him back.

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