Play the Devil: Kevin Spacey Renders Richard III as Sinister and Seductive

<em>Gob Squad’s Kitchen</em> remakes Warhol’s experimental films as crowd-pleasing theater

"Richard III." (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

The first time Kevin Spacey gave The Observer chills was at the end of The Usual Suspects, the brilliantly tricky 1995 noir in which he played “Verbal” Kint, seemingly a small-time, crippled con man narrating the story of the terrifying crime kingpin Keyser Söze. In the movie’s final, unexpected twist, Kint limps away from the office in which he has been talking, and it slowly becomes clear to the cop still sitting there—and to the audience—that we’ve been duped, that Kint’s story was an invention. Kint, meantime, walks to a waiting car, and as does so, his limp smoothly—terrifyingly—disappears.

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In the Richard Iii that opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last week, Mr. Spacey stars as Shakespeare’s hunchbacked, calculating, murderous would-be ruler, and it is once again the limp that defines the characterization.

Mr. Spacey’s Richard has a left leg that is twisted and mangled and held in a brace, a left arm sheathed in a long leather glove, and in his left hand, a black and silver cane, which he wields as a support, a baton, a scepter and a cudgel. From the first scene, when he leaps up from an armchair at center stage and charges forward at the audience, cane pounding the wooden floor, this Richard is commanding and frightening, riveting and seductive. This is not a limp that goes away—even as Mr. Spacey’s bravura stomping and banging occasionally descends into Bond-villain camp, it is always, hauntingly, there, an ugly outward mark of an inwardly ugly man, a schemer who lies, cheats and kills on his way to becoming king.

This more-or-less modern-dress interpretation, directed by Mr. Spacey’s American Beauty collaborator Sam Mendes, is the latest installment of the Bridge Project, the three-year collaboration of BAM, London’s Old Vic (where Mr. Spacey is artistic director) and Mr. Mendes’s production company, Neal Street, established to mount new productions of classic works with transatlantic casts. It debuted to raves in London last spring and toured globally before arriving at the BAM Harvey Theater for a two-month residency.

It is, as all Mr. Mendes’s Bridge Project work has been, a simple but lovely staging, making use of perspective, lighting and live drum-and-keyboards underscoring to create powerful stage images, beginning with Richard sprawled alone in that chair at the play’s start, watching a recording of his brother Edward’s coronation—the winter of his discontent—and climaxing, just before the single intermission, with his coronation, an ominous scene in a long hall filled with pounding drums. (Tom Piper did the scenery, Paul Pryant the lights and Curtis Moore the music.)

But none of that—nor the rest of the top-notch cast—steals focus from Mr. Spacey, whose trademark sly intelligence is a fine match for this brilliant, calculating character. It is transfixing to watch the glee with which Mr. Spacey’s Richard moves through his machinations, as he cannily tells different interlocutors whatever will best serve his aims, and kills or seduces (or both) those who stand between him and his goals. His joy in his villainy is absolute.

Some of the daily critics, writing last week, saw in Richard an analogue to the great shape-shifting aspiring royal of the Republican primary battle, Mitt Romney, then still the man most likely to be the GOP nominee. There is, of course, relevance for today—as Mr. Mendes is more than happy to underline—in this tragedy about the lengths a man will go to for power. But with the benefit of a South Carolina Saturday, we keep thinking of a remark Richard makes in Act I: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy/ With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ/ And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” It could well have been spoken by a serial-marrying adulterer making a successful play for the family-values vote.

Never mind Shakespeare’s insistence that all the world’s a stage—the totally delightful if cumbersomely named Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good), which opened Monday night at the Public Theater, takes that point as a given and quickly moves on to enact Andy Warhol’s promise that anyone can be famous.

Indeed, Gob Squad’s Kitchen opens with the world—or at least the audience—being directed onto the stage of the Public’s Newman Theater, to walk across it and see the sets and actors on it. While the show is performed live, it is performed behind a screen at the front of the stage, and what the audience sees are video projections of what’s going on behind the screen, out of view. It’s a live show played as a movie—a kooky, thoughtful, clever reenactment of Warhol’s 1960s experimental films. And the Gob Squad—a British-German performance troupe, with the first word of its name pronounced as in great green gobs, not as in Gob Bluth—wants us to know they’ll actually be performing back there.

Play the Devil: Kevin Spacey Renders Richard III as Sinister and Seductive