James P. Byrne’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s "Richard III" at Cape Cod Theatre Company’s intimate Arts Center stage is a version for puppets. But these are not wooden puppets; rather they are half human and half puppet talking heads. Human faces of Richard and his henchmen loom above foreshortened and nicely costumed arms and bodies manipulated by the actors. There are also life-sized actors who are not puppets.
The action takes place on a Punch and Judy puppetry stage within the stage and inside windows which cleverly open up to scenes like the Tower of London, as well as in front of the puppet stage.
The plot is cut to its bare essentials, which allows the director to use the play as a comedic political cartoon in the Grand Guignol style of cutting off heads and bodies falling off of parapets.
We watch Richard scheme to take the kingdom from his dying brother Edward and his Queen, Elizabeth (Emily Murray), while betraying his friends, murdering family, and waging war.
Dogs, he says, bark at him; he knows he is deformed and decides that since he cannot be a lover he will be hate-filled and revenge himself on the world by gaining power over it. Yet lover he also is, seducing with honeyed words.
Byrne not only directs but plays Richard with a clearly enunciated pragmatic wit and a kind of rational madness which eventually envelops everything, including himself, becoming larger than life and increasing in rage. He knows he’s a villain and he delights in it. The less his conscience bothers him, the weirder his blood lusts become.
Most affected by his rank evil are the four queens – Richard’s mother (Diana Toscano-Gross); Margaret (Joanne Powers), who was deposed when her husband was murdered and Edward became King; Elizabeth (Tamara Harper), Edwards’s queen; and Lady Ann (Emily Murray), who becomes for a short time Richard’s queen. The women know that from the “kettle" of the womb came a “hell hound.” Ann dies, but the three others become unlikely allies, joining in the art of the curse to bring down Richard, who has murdered those they love.
We are reminded by Richard’s executioners and minions that conscience resides in the purse of he who pays for evil deeds. We are cautioned that megalomania brings “insulting tyranny.”
Richard blames his victims for the very ill deeds he himself does. He manipulates. He covers himself in the pretense of piety, though he is the least pious of men. His hypocrisy knows no bounds. “I thank God for my humility,” he says even as he slanders and murders.
The cast of children and adults plays a number of roles, for the most part with the necessary style, switching gender as needed. Powers is a nicely understated contrast to Richard. Murray changes easily from the clunky Duke of Clarence to Lady Ann. Tamara Harper as Elizabeth interacts in some convincing moments with the other queens, and her sarcasm to Richard is particularly effective.
The show serves Byrne’s vision if not the Bard’s. He presents "Richard III" like a modern take on a medieval mummers' morality-miracle play to deliver a timely and clever piece of theater.
At the Cape Cod Theatre Company Arts Center, 265 Sisson Rd., Harwich Center
Through Nov. 27, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m.
Reservations and information: 508-432-2002, www.capecodtheatrecompany.org