When you hear that a puppeteer and a New Vaudeville clown are performing a cabaret-style adaptation of Richard III, only one area theater should come to mind. No, it's not the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival or the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, and certainly not Washington's Shakespeare Theatre.
This must be the Theatre Project, the place that brought us a one-man Tempest (an actor, a doll and a Bic lighter) and a non-verbal Bulgarian puppet rendition of Romeo and Juliet.
The current show is Richard 3.5: Light Ruminations on Murder. And, true to its subtitle, the two-man production offers a light look at regicide, not to mention spouse-icide, nephew-icide and anyone-who-gets-in-your-way-icide.
Written and performed by puppeteer Eric Bass, from Vermont's Sandglass Theater, and comedian Bob Berky, this loosey-goosey look at Shakespeare's tragedy casts Berky as an unexpectedly congenial murderous monarch.
Encouraging him, in an equally congenial manner, is Bass as the evening's emcee, a guitar-strumming, bowler-hatted gentleman who neatly sums up the coming attraction as "11 murders with seven songs." Bass also, literally, hands Richard his victims. These take the form of small white puppet heads, most of which are concealed in large candles, which Bass cracks open.
Berky snuffs out his prey in diverse ways. The heads of King Henry VI and his son (also named Richard) are placed atop red roses, symbolizing the house of Lancaster. Richard III then snips off the blooms and tosses the heads in a bucket. Lords Rivers and Grey are dispatched by covering their heads with plastic bags. And "the kids" -- nephews Edward and, yes, another Richard -- are locked in the Tower at the side of the stage, from which flames erupt.
The heads in the bucket exact comic revenge when Berky's Richard perches on the pail for a television interview. And Bass' emcee has some fun with repeated -- and relatively futile -- efforts to help the audience sort out who's who (no small feat in a chronicle in which just about everybody seems to be named Richard or Edward).
The evening also includes a pie-eating contest, complete with audience volunteer, as well as musical interludes accompanied on instruments ranging from a bodhran (a small Irish drum, played by Bass) to a pair of spoons (briskly played by Berky).
Yet throughout these potentially jaunty proceedings, Berky's Richard is almost blase. Even his character's crucial, personality-warping physical deformity is something Berky can merely toss off -- a gray tail coat with a small hump sewn over one shoulder and topped by a little cape.
Berky's Richard is a man who kills not so much because he's power-crazed or bloodthirsty, but simply for our viewing pleasure. And if that's his motivation, then what does that make us?
Perhaps we're supposed to be horrified by how lightly this villain takes his villainy. But instead of luring the audience in and making us feel complicit, this Richard seems to commit murder for lack of anything else to do.
It's an interesting interpretation in a production with many engaging touches, but at this early point in the show's development, it needs further definition. And, it's an interpretation with an inherent flaw -- if the title character isn't fully involved, it's difficult to involve the audience.
Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $16. Call 410-752-8558 or visit www.theatre project.org.