Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Folger Theatre Richard III

By • Feb 4th, 2014 • Category: Reviews
Richard III
Folger Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, Washington DC
Through March 9th
2:40 with intermission
$30-$72/Discounts Available (Plus Fees)
Reviewed February 2nd, 2014

“I am determined to prove a villain,” declares Richard, the cunning Duke of Gloucester and soon to be a king. He is speaking directly to us as his confidants. What a curious way to try to woo us. And yet we stay with him. He is such a charming, master manipulator. We lean forward, attentive to Shakespeare’s Richard III under the confident, “this is how I see it,” direction of Robert Richmond currently at the Folger Theatre.

“If anything in this life is certain; if history has taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.” That is the quote that popped into your reviewer’s mind and resonated as I was both intrigued and captivated by Drew Cortese’s portrayal of that ultimate, poster bad boy, Richard III. Ah but that quoted line is not from Richard III. It is by way of Al Pacino in “Godfather II.” It just seems so fitting given the number of deaths that transpire at Richard’s behest in Shakespeare’s history play.

Cortese is a confident, strong-willed, assertive, sinewy, cat-like, and oh so flirty Richard. He is just trying to make his mark in the discontented world he inhabits, whether summer or winter. It is the time of the War of the Roses in England of the 1400’s.

And it begins, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Later, when I returned home, another Pacino line came into my mind’s focus. “In this country, you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, then you get the women. That’s why you gotta make your own moves.” Yes, again Pacino, but this time from “Scarface.”

And isn’t Richard supposed to be scared physically and morally? Yet Cortese moves along on his path of destruction, easily strutting about the stage ready to pounce on the those he decides will become his next prey. His famous deformity is rather invisible to this reviewer. Cortese bounds about with a slight limp that is a dueling scar. It adds to his magnetism and, interest. He has no outward appearance of ugliness or scars. Or is there some much deeper scar that his appearance glosses over in this portrayal? You will decide that from your own perspective and life experience.

The story line of Richard and his dreams of becoming King of England is nicely condensed by the Folger Theatre marketing folk; “He carves a way to the throne through assassination and executions.” As time goes by, however, Richard meets a growing resistance to his march to becoming Royalty. His allies desert him. Vengeance and curses begin to take hold. Ghosts appear. His enticing confidence begins to waiver. Where once he was the master of all, increasingly he is alone. Women who were once “eye-candy” become assertive and sting like angry wasps.

Surrounding and sparring with Cortese is a strong ensemble. Many have few lines, but die well whether men, women or two children. The men are the political strategist and physical swordsmen. They serve in hopes of benefiting and surviving with their heads. The women are at the emotional center. They provide steam heat and beating hearts through words and curses.

Some highlighted performances include stage veteran Naomi Jacobson as Queen Margaret. She is the soothsayer, an Oracle of Delphi character. but with a delightfully nasty visceral attitude. She seeks out revenge on Richard for all his terrible deeds, including the murder of her own husband. “Bear with me; I am hungry for revenge” Jacobson gives us venom to savor.

Julia Motyka’s Queen Elizabeth is a tall, slim elegance fitted into a body hugging blood-red long straight gown with a black leather corset. With blond hair up, and her chiseled cheekbones she seems a cool iceberg of a presence, at least at the start. As the calamities proceed, including the murder of her two sons as ordered by Richard, she heats up. A rougher, tougher visage appears. Motyka’s eyes speak with fire even when not a word passes her lips. When Motyka asks Jacobson’s Queen Margaret “to teach me to curse” the words come as if to expose a sharp lethal weapon. When Motyka spits real spittle at Richard, he is momentarily speechless. When the two of them circle each other in Act II, as if in the boxing ring, her movements speak hatred. She has even removed a little silk jacket as if in a boxing match, so as not to get bloody. With her newly exposed fangs, this Queen Elizabeth is no longer mere eye-candy to be taken lightly and to produce heirs only.

Howard W. Overshown is Buckingham, the right-hand man who helps secure the throne for Richard. Over time, he finds himself duped. He will not receive what has been promised to him for his support of Richard’s quest. Overshown’s characterization moves from being cock-sure of his place, to slowly realizing he will pay the ultimate price for not being sufficiently subservient. A right-hand man can never speak truth to power and not pay a price; “I am thus bold to put your grace in mind, Of what you promised me.”

The set by multi Helen Hayes Award Tony Cisek and the overall technical designs of Richard III go well beyond just a first-time re-configuration of the Folger as a theater in the round. The set is minimal. Well, unless except for a black-shrouded coffin center-stage as the production opens

Where there are usually seats on the Folger floor, they have been removed, replaced with a stage area rising from off the floor. As the production progresses, we get to see perhaps nine trap doors from which actors appear, and bodies dispatched and disappear. The audience surrounds the stage area as if at a boxing match with others looking down from the balcony, leaning over the boxing ring beneath them. Richmond has his cast of characters use any and all of the Folger space, not just the central stage area, but the aisles and the balconies.

The imagination gives over to a sound design and music composed by Eric Shimelonis. The incidental organ and other instruments were also played by Shimelonis with vocals of Rebecca Sheir. The sound design includes auditory cues when Richard begins to dream of his victims or ghosts appear before him.

Lighting by Jim Hunter is often a brooding, moody grey tone with strong pinks and purples coming from the numerous trap doors on the raised set when they are opened to accept another dead body. Under effective strobe lighting, the Act II battle scenes are choreographed by Casey Dean Kaleba with clanking swords, battle axes and knives.

Mariah Hale’s costume design places the characters in distant times. The men are in dark, long great coats of leather or wool. The women are in colorful attire with Queen Elizabeth the most fashionable and sensual.

Take this opportunity to see Richard III in the unexpected setting of the Folger Theatre in the round. It has an intimacy to it. Words are not lost. Meanings easily conveyed. Take this opportunity to know a charmer who doesn’t want to kill everyone, just his enemies. Well, those he defines as his enemies, no matter the gender or age.

Allow yourself to pulled in. We do love our well-played, villains, don’t we.

Note: Over the past year, the real life Richard III has been in the news for his bones were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England. The real world discovery even leads to a set choice seen as the final words are spoken and the audience files out of the Folger.

Photo Gallery

Naomi Jacobson stars as Queen Margaret Michael Sharon as Clarence
Naomi Jacobson stars as Queen Margaret
Michael Sharon as Clarence
Buckingham (Howard W. Overshown, left) in counsel with Catesby (Michael Sharon) Drew Cortese stars as King Richard
Buckingham (Howard W. Overshown, left) in counsel with Catesby (Michael Sharon)
Drew Cortese stars as King Richard
King Richard (Drew Cortese), empowered and armed
King Richard (Drew Cortese), empowered and armed

Photos by Jeff Malet


  • Richard III: Drew Cortese
  • Buckingham: Howard W. Overshown
  • Queen Margaret: Naomi Jacobson
  • Lady Anne: Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan
  • Lord Stanley: Richard Sheridan Wills
  • King Edward: Paul Morella
  • Queen Elizabeth: Julia Motyka
  • Duchess of York: Nanna Ingvarsson
  • Clarence: Michael Sharon
  • Rivers: Michale Gabriel Goodfriend
  • Princess Elizabeth: Jenna Berk
  • Lovell: Danel Flint
  • Ratcliffe: Andrew Criss
  • Prince Edward: Holden Brettell
  • Duke of York: Remy Brettell
  • Hastings/Tymel: Sean Fri

Creative and Design Team

  • Director: Robert Richmond
  • Scenic Designer: Tony Cisek
  • Costume Designer: Mariah Hale
  • Lighting Designer: Jim Hunter
  • Sound Designer and Music Composition: Eric Shimelonis
  • Fight Director: Casey Dean Kaleba
  • fight Captain: Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan
  • Resident Dramaturg: Michele Osherow
  • New York Casting: Daryl Eisenberg, CSA
  • Production Stage Manager: Che Wernsman
  • Assistant Stage Manager: Keri Schultz
  • Artistic Producer: Janet Alexander Griffen
  • Assistant Artistic Producer: Beth Emelson

Disclaimer: Folger Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

Tagged as: , ,

This article can be linked to as:

is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.

Comments are closed.