How does a once-great nation survive when its leader is unhinged?
That question is, um, perhaps less academic than it once was. So you might feel a few uneasy twinges of recognition as you sit on Boston Common watching the title figure of “Richard III’’ rage and lie and scheme and generally manipulate the mechanisms of governance in pursuit of power and personal enrichment.
Of course, Shakespeare wanted you to feel uneasy, wanted you to consider how unsettlingly simple it is for Richard to impose his will and gain the British throne by constructing a new reality — alternative facts, you might say — and persuading others to buy into that distorted vision.
Richard does so by dint of bullying and force, yes, but also a kind of sinister charm and a gift for ornate language (it would never fit on a tweet) that conceals his meaning, starting with his famous words of lofty praise for his brother the king, whose crown he covets: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.’’ From his sneering utterance of that line in the opening scene of Steven Maler’s taut yet adrenalized Commonwealth Shakespeare Company production of “Richard III,’’ Faran Tahir creates a ruthless Richard who clearly believes he was born to command.
No Richard Crookback he: Tahir’s Richard walks with a slight limp and relies on a cane, and his left arm is immobilized at his side, but his back contains no hump, and the actor cuts a dashing figure — perhaps a bit too dashing. It’s still a scene of jaw-dropping audacity when Richard woos Lady Anne (Libby McKnight) right next to the casket containing her dead husband — a death she blames Richard for — but Tahir’s piercing gaze, charisma, and good looks are such that Richard’s confidence in his powers of seduction does not seem wholly misplaced. By the end of the scene, this Richard goes so far as to kiss Anne.
“Richard III’’ can register as a confusing porridge of names, titles, and obscure quarrels, so it might help to do a bit of homework beforehand. (As to the accuracy of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor depiction of Richard as an irredeemable villain, you should also keep in mind the admonition by the scholar A.P. Rossiter: “To think that we are seeing anything like sober history in this play is derisible naivety.’’). Apart from Richard, most characters are thinly developed, but there are still several standout performances on the Common in addition to Tahir’s.
It is the women of “Richard III’’ who denounce him most fiercely, and several actresses virtually singe the air with invective, including Bobbie Steinbach as old Queen Margaret, a font of inventive and harrowing curses; McKnight, whose Anne is a fierce verbal combatant; and Deb Martin, delivering a harrowing portrait of grief and rage as Queen Elizabeth, whose two young sons are slain in the Tower of London on Richard’s orders.
Director Maler has also re-enlisted a pair of actors who deliver the goods in season after CSC season and do so again in “Richard III.’’ Remo Airaldi movingly conveys the desperation of Richard’s trusting, doomed brother, Clarence, in his final moments. Fred Sullivan Jr., who has a gift for making an audience sit up and take notice, both charms and repels as Richard’s jocular, amoral, and also doomed co-conspirator, the Duke of Buckingham.
The action transpires on a thrust stage that contains virtually no scenery or props beyond some straight-backed chairs, with shadowy lighting (by Eric Southern, who also designed the set) that sustains an atmosphere of foreboding while also underscoring the darkness in Richard’s soul. The overall mood of menace is further enhanced by the percussive music (by Nathan Leigh, who also handles the sound design) and by sleekly ominous suits of black, gray, and blue in which the cast is attired. Costume designer Jessica Pabst drew her inspiration from the late British fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s collection “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims.’’
As is often the case with these free Shakespeare on the Common productions, the surroundings emerge as a character of sorts over the course of “Richard III,’’ both for the good and the not-so-good. In the latter category: At the performance I attended, actors occasionally had to compete with the sound of sirens from the street, planes flying overhead, and wind whistling through microphones.
But then would come a perfect serendipitous moment beyond the capacity of any script, such as when Tahir’s Richard was boasting of using “scripture’’ to “clothe my naked villainy . . . and seem a saint, when most I play the devil,’’ and at that instant, a bell tolled from a nearby church. Under the circumstances, it sounded less like a benediction than a warning.
Play by William Shakespeare
Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company. On Boston Common near Parkman Bandstand. Through Aug. 5. Performances are free and open to the public. Reserved chairs available for $60-$75 per chair. 617-426-0863, www.commshakes.org