It seems only appropriate that PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s production of “Richard III” makes its debut during election season.
With his ambition, charisma and talent for manipulating the masses, the dastardly Duke of Gloucester would make the perfect presidential candidate.
William Shakespeare’s labyrinthine tale of betrayal, murder and political machinations opens in the aftermath of England’s “winter of discontent” — the series of violent clashes between the houses of Lancaster and York known as the Wars of the Roses.
King Edward IV (Erik Stein) has ascended the throne with the help of his brothers, Richard (Andrew Philpot, extraordinary) and George, the Duke of Clarence (fight choreographer Mark Booher). With Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Stuart) and Lord Hastings (Michael Tremblay) by his side, sickly Edward hopes to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity.
But Richard, that “subtle, false and treacherous” spider whose hunger for power knows no bounds, has other plans.
Being “rudely stamp’d,” he’s ill-suited “to strut before a wanton ambling nymph,” let alone dally in a woman’s bed. “Therefore, since I cannot prove a lover … I am determined to prove a villain,” he tells us, “and hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
Richard details his cunning campaign.
First, he’ll bring about his brothers’ deaths. Then he’ll woo and win the lovely Lady Anne (Karin Hendricks), providing she can overlook the fact that he murdered her husband, Prince Edward, and father-in-law, Henry VI.
Then, finally, he’ll find a way to seize the throne for himself, enlisting the aid of the Duke of Buckingham (George Walker) and other noblemen (including Leo Cortez and Antwon D. Mason Jr.).
Remarkably, no one seems to see Richard as a real threat — not his brothers; not his mother, the Duchess of York (Polly Firestone Walker); not even Elizabeth and her kin (Alex Jean, Dylan Perry and Tux Johnson). The warnings of Henry VI’s widow, Queen Margaret (Kitty Balay), fall on deaf ears.
Capably directed by PCPA alumna Robynn Rodriguez, PCPA’s production of “Richard III” puts a modern spin on a medieval story with moody lighting by lighting designer Jennifer “Z” Zornow and raucous rock cues by sound designer Andrew Mark Wilhelm.
Costume designer Eddy L. Barrows dresses the massive cast in understated yet elegant suits, uniforms and gowns whose lines recall Christian Dior’s New Look. Scenic designer Jason Bolen’s bare-bones set, which resembles a skeletal castle or cathedral, is likewise designed not to distract from the powerful performances onstage.
Andrew Philpot presents a true tour de force as the title tyrant, a cruel conspirator whose conscience is as crooked as his spine. Clearly relishing his role as one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains, he mines each line for rich veins of coal-black humor. (“Richard III,” of course, features some of the best insults in Shakespeare’s catalog; sample zingers include “hateful withered hag,” “poisonous bunch-backed toad” and “elvish-mark’d abortive rooting hog.”)
The bravura of Philpot’s performance is rivaled only by Balay as mad Queen Margaret. As she calls down her curses on Yorks, she transforms into a tornado of rage.
But even small roles carry great weight in this production. The scene in which the two men hired by Richard to dispatch the Duke of Clarence — Sir James Tyrrel (Timothy Samaniego) and his dull-witted pal (Seryozha La Porte) — dicker over their deadly task is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
That paradoxical attitude holds true for the rest of “Richard III,” which asks the audience to sob at Richard’s savagery while chuckling at his cleverness. For all its bleakness, this tragedy can be bloody fun.
1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Saturday; through May 8
Marian Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria
$29.50 to $39.50