The king you love to hate — and actors love to play, because he’s so delectably detestable — is currently holding court at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That would be “Richard III,” the quintessential Shakespearean villain, in the person of Kevin Spacey as directed by Sam Mendes.
Set more or less in the present on a strikingly stark stage by Tom Piper, lined with doors to nowhere, “Richard” starts strong as Spacey toys with the duplicitous monarch wannabe, who pretends to befriend just about everyone as he’s plotting their downfall in his relentless pursuit of the throne. With vaudevillian asides, a black heart and even a touch of Groucho, Spacey finds nuances to keep Richard engaging as he begins to orchestrate the deaths of those who stand between him and the crown (two brothers and two nephews) — and even those who don’t.
But as the number of deaths mounts, Richard no longer needs to be two-faced. He’s reduced to pure evil. The play becomes repetitive and Spacey’s bag of tricks shrinks: he’s loud and shrill and not much else. He valiantly carries on for over three hours, but he’s ultimately undone by the material. How many murders can you mastermind while keeping it fresh?
Mendes makes brilliant use of drums to create tension, but his choice to cast two girls as young princes is distracting.?His direction suffers from an inability to find, or at least maintain, variety in a powerful, but ultimately monotonous, bloodbath.