Of all the monarchs who came under Shakespeare's scrutiny and poetic license, Richard III may be the least likable — and most riveting.
Like some evil version of the hobbling, stuttering Roman emperor Claudius, Richard was "cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up."
Where Claudius was too shy to seek the throne and turned out to be a fairly decent ruler by ancient Roman standards when power was thrust upon him, Richard sliced his way to the crown with appalling amorality, only to become a total loser, as Shakespeare tells it.
The kind of personal shortcomings — a penchant for chronic scheming and dirty tricks, obsession with control and influence — that characterized this king are hardly scarce today, as the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's staging of "Richard III" will seek to underscore.
"I'm putting an absolutely contemporary spin on it," said director Michael Carleton. "The opening speech, the one about 'the winter of our discontent' that everyone knows, always struck me as a political speech. It's like something that could be delivered at the Republican National Convention. It's a victory speech for a king who has just won the battle."
For that first scene, the production, designed by Angela Dockery, will evoke the hoopla of a present-day political convention.
"We just came out of a crazy political season," Carleton said, "so I think a modern audience can relate to the quest for power that is in the play. And, as we've explored the play, we kept finding so many parallels to modern politics. The character of Buckingham, the adviser to Richard, is Karl Rove. We have our Hilary [Clinton] and our Barbara Bush, too."
Video projections will be used to help set the mood in the production, which stars Seth Reichgott in the title role and Tony Tsendeas as Buckingham.
For the final act, which finds poor Richard in the midst of a losing battle famously offering his kingdom for a horse, footage of contemporary warfare will be shown. Horses, obviously, don't figure into much combat these days, but Carleton isn't concerned with anachronism.
"What Richard is saying is, 'I'll take any kind of help at this point; if the jeeps and tanks aren't working, just give me a horse,'" the director said.
Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, a professional company perhaps best known for its summer season of outdoor performances at Evergreen Museum and Library, presents several plays indoors at other times during the year in a church with an Elizabethan-inspired interior. Educational outreach is a priority for the company, one of 40 in the country participating in an initiative sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest called Shakespeare for a New Generation.
"We've sent study guides for 'Richard III' to a dozen schools," Carleton said, "and 1,000 schoolkids will be bused in to attend the show. The actors will go the schools afterward to have workshops with them."
This new interpretation of "Richard III" ought to make it more approachable for members of the iPod generation, and a lot of their elders as well.
"Sometimes, when you choose a concept for a play, you end up thinking, 'Oh, I hope this is going to work,'" Carleton said. "But at every rehearsal of this one, I kept thinking this is actually working brilliantly. I'm thrilled with the way it's going."
If you go
"Richard III" runs Friday through Dec. 19 at St. Mary's, 3900 Roland Ave. $10 to $25. Call 410-366-8596 or go to baltimoreshakespeare.org.