Spacey Stars as Twisted Fascist in ‘Richard III’: Jeremy Gerard

King Richard III has 1,171 lines in the drama Shakespeare named for him. Kevin Spacey mangles just about every one of them, beginning with “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” right through “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” more than three hours later.

Spacey is playing Shakespeare’s most comically evil creation -- a hunchback even dogs bark at -- at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This is the last outing of the Bridge Project, a three-year collaboration of American and British theater artists.

Richard begins the play as the Duke of Gloucester, a battlefield hero despite his hunch, his withered arm and bent leg, jealous of the brother who has won the crown.

Nature, he assures us, has denied him a lover’s gifts, but scorn and rejection have forged him into a survivor with a thirst for power.

The production reunites Spacey and his “American Beauty” director Sam Mendes.

Together they recycle every cliche in the contemporary Shakespeare arsenal. Minimalist sets? Check. Monochrome costumes with leather and hardware accents? Check. Tedious parallels to Hitler and Mussolini? Check. Grainy newsreel footage projected above the action? Of course.

Photographer: Manuel Harlan/BAM via Bloomberg

Kevin Spacey in "Richard III." Shakespeare's play is given a modern update, with suggestions of dictators and Groucho Marx . Close

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Photographer: Manuel Harlan/BAM via Bloomberg

Kevin Spacey in "Richard III." Shakespeare's play is given a modern update, with suggestions of dictators and Groucho Marx .

Groucho Marx

To that dreary list, they’ve added dashes of Neil Simon and Groucho Marx.

Spacey sets the shrieking campy tone, bellowing Richard’s opening monologue and pausing just long enough to do a little Groucho cigar waggling here, a little conspiratorial confiding with the audience there.

Want a preview? Rent Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl” and watch as poor Richard Dreyfuss lands the title role in this play under a director with similarly kitsch designs, if more amusing results.

Spacey’s not the only conspirator in this travesty. The cast is full of names familiar to theatergoers on both sides of the Atlantic. Queen Elizabeth -- why that’s Haydn Gwynne, the world-weary dance teacher from “Billy Elliot.” Margaret, Shakespeare’s imperious Cassandra-like prophetess of doom, is played with sourness but no venom by Gemma Jones. And Lady Anne, wooed by Richard before the blood of her slaughtered father and husband have had time to cool -- isn’t that Anna Wintour? No, just icy Annabel Scholey, with Louise Brooks bangs.

It’s been a decade since Ian McKellen essayed this role at BAM (similarly fascist-inspired but lots more engaging). What McKellen (not to mention Al Pacino, John Wood and several other great actors of our time) had that’s utterly lacking here are the cunning, charm and wit that make us enablers in Richard’s bloody scheme. Without these, he might as well be hollering to himself.

Through March 4 at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Information: +1-718-636-4100; http://www.bam.org. Rating: (no stars)


What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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