Playing Shakespeare’s Richard III, actor Faran Tahir holds a useless left arm to his side and limps with his left foot turned slightly inward. But he is not frail, not hideous. Stalking a bare rehearsal stage in jeans and a black T-shirt, with a shaved head, he is unmistakably a man rather than a monster, virile as he woos Lady Anne, whose husband and father he has murdered, then gloats about it in an aside to the audience.
Richard III is often played as a hunchback, grotesque in mind and body, half murderous villain and half special effect. But for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Richard III,” playing free on Boston Common July 18-Aug. 5, Tahir and director Steven Maler have toned down the physical aspect to focus on his misshapen spirit, as he carves a bloody path to the throne.
“I think the fascination is not that he is such an evil [man]. I mean, he does what he does, and he justifies it in the first soliloquy,” Tahir says. “The challenge to me is a bigger one: How do you find something in him that people can relate to, not just enjoy the devilish side of him? How do you explore the human side of him, the vulnerabilities? He is not without conscience, and that conscience finally catches up to him.”
Shakespeare never creates a cardboard villain, Maler says, and when an actor can play all the contours and dimensions of Richard (referred to in the text as “Gloucester,” for he is the Duke of Gloucester), the crowd roots for him in a way, enthralled by him.
“It’s a character that has the opportunity to forge this incredible connection with the audience until they can’t any longer,” Maler says, “until they become revulsed by his actions and feel complicit in them to a certain degree, because they’ve been cheering him on.”
The cast scattered across the rehearsal stage at Babson College in Wellesley includes Remo Airaldi as Clarence, Richard’s doomed brother; Libby McKnight as Lady Anne; and Bobbie Steinbach as Queen Margaret, whose tongue-lashing of Richard is a first-act highlight.
Tahir is a fourth-generation artist. His grandparents and great-grandparents were writers and playwrights, and his parents are both actors and directors. While his roots are in Pakistan, he was born in Los Angeles. The family returned to Pakistan when his father was offered the artistic directorship of a prestigious theater in Lahore, before Tahir returned to the United States for high school and college. He has acted both in Pakistan — where he has been directed by his father, and played opposite his mother — and onstage in New York.
Eventually he began landing TV and movie roles, including the nasty Raza in “Iron Man” and Captain Robau in the 2009 “Star Trek.” In an interview, anyway, he is relatively sanguine about the challenges actors from the Indian Subcontinent face in Hollywood, where they are often typecast as bad guys. “I have a rule if I do three bad guys, if the fourth one comes, my agents know this and they’re very good about it, even if it’s a little bit of a kick to the bank account, let’s not do that,” he says.
“To be considered mainstream, I don’t need to be John Smith. We live in a diverse nation. We always talk about an ‘American accent.’ Can I do that? I can do that. But what is an American accent? [Diversity] is part of who we are — it’s whether we accept it or not.”
He first appeared in Boston as Oberon in the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s very first production, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Copley Square. He and Maler, the company’s founding artistic director, had met when they were both at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in the 1990s, Tahir as an acting student at the ART Institute, Maler in a series of behind-the-scenes roles. They’ve been talking about his CommShakes return on and off for a long time.
“He’s one of these actors who has a real commitment and passion for theater,” Maler says. “It’s very easy, when you have the kind of opportunity he’s had, to leave that part of your life behind and go do big movies and a lot of TV and get paid really well. And getting out there and sweating it out on Boston Common for not very much money — not every actor wants to do that.”
Richard had scoliosis in real life, according to scientific studies after his remains were discovered in 2012. Tahir says he’s aware of an increasing revisionism that says Shakespeare overplayed Richard’s villainy as well as his disability, that the most heinous acts attributed to him were committed by others. History, after all, is written by the winners — which Richard, in the climactic battle at Bosworth Field, was not. “Many of my friends sent me articles as soon as I got this part,” Tahir says with a smile. “The truth might be different, I totally get that, but we need to tell the story Shakespeare wanted to tell.”
Maler says the choice of play should be viewed in the context of the rest of Commonwealth Shakespeare’s season, which also included “Fear and Misery in the Third Reich,” “Death and the Maiden,” “Old Money,” and “Macbeth.” The through-lines include despotic regimes and what it takes to live through them.
“I’ve nicknamed it our ‘winter of discontent’ season,” Maler says, invoking Richard’s famous first line. Not that he’s (cough cough) talking about any real-life leader.
“We’re living in a very, very weird time right now,” Maler says. “I feel like things that have been underneath the surface, that we’ve either chosen to ignore or that we’ve been naive about, have really burst forth now. It’s a global phenomenon, not just here. We see this lurch toward totalitarianism and we see this demonizing of the other, and it’s a very volatile time. And I think it’s important to look back at history and to look at great works of art that offer a window into the consequences of men’s actions and where they can lead, and how do you head them off at the pass.”
Produced by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. At Parkman Bandstand on Boston Common, July 18-Aug. 5. Free; chairs may be reserved for $60-$75. www.commshakes.org
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org