At this midsummer point, Theatricum Botanicum's revival of "Richard III," William Shakespeare's ever-trenchant study of lethal ambition, has found its bearings and inner rhythms. If Ellen Geer's agreeably traditional, briskly executed staging doesn't necessarily transport its audience, it certainly draws them in, starting with the devilish deformed title villain.
Chad Jason Scheppner, who alternates with Melora Marshall in the role, seizes attention from "Now is the winter of our discontent" onward. Approaching the character with audacious modern pathology, a vast vocal dynamic, and remarkable physicality—the brace on one leg becomes its own visual motif as he slithers, toadies, and capers through the action—Scheppner rather suggests a National Theatre version of the young Nicolas Cage. His innately heroic quality requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, yet there is no ignoring Scheppner's essential command of the role, from the hairpin turns between hilarity and venom to Richard's conspiratorial asides, right up to his pathetic final moments.
Scheppner interfaces with several equally accomplished players—who are not without their quirks, though overall they are committed and engrossing. Willow Geer gives a superb performance as Lady Anne, emotionally direct and focused, taking great advantage of her lower register. So does Abby Craden as Queen Elizabeth; Craden's detailed, resonant progress from assured hauteur to agonized bereavement illuminates some of Elizabeth's trickiest passages. And Marshall digs into the Duchess of York with long-honed gravitas and iambic mastery, a grand performance in the classic manner.
Yes, perhaps Earnestine Phillips is almost too stentorian as Margaret, chomping into the curse like Judith Anderson possessed by a tent revivalist, but just try to look away. Of the various males who fall beneath Richard's spider climb to power, Christopher W. Jones is a strikingly clear-spoken, almost contemporary Buckingham, Tim Halligan is an agreeably measured Hastings, and William Dennis Hunt brings his every molecule to the brief but critical role of Edward IV. At the reviewed performance, Chris Parker went on for Thad Geer as Clarence; a measure of hesitation at times was detectable, his poignancy in the murder scene undeniable. Tyler Tanner and Dylan Booth Vigus' contrasting murderers and Andrew Ravani's take-no-prisoners Richmond are among other standouts in a huge cast that is distinguished not just by its ease in maneuvering through the incomparable venue in designer Perry Bret Ash's ornate period costumes, but also by a systemic involvement and crispness of placement. The play is relentlessly uncut, and there's certainly room for continued investigation of its darkest contradictions, but this is nonetheless a representative Theatricum outing, ideal for school groups and purists.
Presented by and at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. July 2-Oct. 2. Repertory schedule. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com.