As portrayed by Anatol Yusef, Shakespeare's Richard III is not only a malevolent schemer but also a superlative actor. When he woos Lady Anne over her husband's corpse, his declaration of love is so quiveringly passionate you have to feel some of it's real. That is, until she leaves and Richard impishly lets us know his ardor was faked. The same sort of thing occurs when Richard expresses his despair over the imprisonment of his brother Clarence and at various other times as he manipulates and murders his way to the throne.
This thespian power is more than just villainous deception and adds an interesting dynamic to Yusef's fine performance. The physical aspects of the role add another dimension. The English actor uses his short stature to emphasize the scheming duke's hunching deformity. When he looks up into the faces of his adversaries or conspirators, he takes on the air of a vicious rat about to bite. Furthermore, Yusef's Richard is magnetic as well as repellent. His battle cry to his troops near the play's end is truly rousing.
Unfortunately, the production itself can be rough going. Director Lynnea Benson admirably attempts to tell the story in a straightforward manner, but her staging often seems unfocused and doesn't help clarify the complex network of royalty and princely peers inhabiting Shakespeare's tragedy. There are some good turns, including Vivien Landau's distraught Duchess of York, William Laney's frightened Clarence, and Topher Mikels' sturdy Earl of Richmond. But overall, the performances are uneven.
The scattershot costumes by Bengal are equally distracting. While the women wear glittery gowns that could be leftovers from TV's Dallas or Dynasty, the men sport thrift-store castoffs. Thankfully, in Yusef's case, the clothes don't make the king. Sheer evil ambition and acting chops do.
Presented by Frog & Peach Theatre Company
at the West End Theatre, Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, 263 W. 86th St., NYC.
Oct. 3-26. Thu.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.