A Rich, Sweeping Nontraditional `Richard III'

RICHARD III Tragedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robin Phillips. At the Delacorte Theater through Sept 2. PACE and pageantry mingle in the handsome revival of ``Richard III'' staged by Robin Phillips, onetime artistic director of Canada's Stratford Festival. This 15th production in the New York Shakespeare Festival's marathon of the Bard's plays is memorable for its authority, sweep, and histrionic richness.

Denzel Washington, currently starring on the screen in Spike Lee's ``Mo' Better Blues,'' proves his versatility with a bold entry into a medieval world of ruthless self-advancement. Mr. Washington's black-clad Gloucester (later Richard III) is, from the outset, the requisitely self-proclaimed villain, pleading his deformity as the rationale for the plots he has ``laid ... in this weak piping time of peace.''

Mr. Washington begins Richard's opening soliloquy by contemptuously spitting. If this makes him an even less likely wooer of the doomed Lady Anne (Sharon Washington), whose husband and father-in-law he has slain, the actor is willing to take the risk. This is a performance whose boldness matches Richard's drive, obsessive ambition, and what one critic called the usurper's ``demonic energy.'' Mr. Washington is less successful at projecting the man's sardonic humor, as when he thanks God ``for my humility'' or pretends piously to shun the crown.

The ominous atmosphere of a kingdom under a reign of terror is visualized in Elis Y. Lam's scenery (lighted by Louise Guinand): a red painted stage whose superstructure is dominated by a forbidding portcullis. Under the Phillips staging, the large company moves fluidly from scene to scene and climax to climax.

Typical of the Delacorte Theater achievements are the staging of Queen Margaret's all encompassing curse, delivered with baleful malevolence by Mary Alice, and the assembling of an uneasy court as a fatally ill King Edward IV (Sam Tsoutsouvas) seeks to reconcile his contentious nobles. Such large ensembles contrast with more intimate scenes like the aforementioned wooing of Lady Anne and Richard's suit to Queen Elizabeth (Nancy Palk) for the hand of her daughter.

The slightly abridged text is in the main ably articulated by a company that includes Daniel Davis (Buckingham), Joseph Ziegler (Clarence), Jeffrey Nordling (Hastings), and Armand Schultz (Richmond). The interracial casting succeeds in most respects. This ``Richard III'' is an ambitious undertaking and an impressive achievement.

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