CAMBRIDGE — A year ago the intrepid Boston actor-playwright Steven Barkhimer tackled one of the most daunting challenges of his eclectic career, starring as the alternately beleaguered and vengeful George in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’ at Lyric Stage.
Now Barkhimer is climbing another steep performative mountain: the villainous title figure in “Richard III,’’ which is one of the longest roles in all of Shakespeare.
Even in the streamlined version of “Richard III’’ that is directed by Robert Walsh for Actors’ Shakespeare Project, it’s an immensely demanding part, and Barkhimer acquits himself admirably. Key to his success is that Barkhimer — whose own pleasure in performance has always been a quality to savor — embraces the all-encompassing theatricality of the scheming, bloody-minded monarch he’s playing. He gives us a Richard who is acting at virtually every moment of his dealings with others. For all the avidity of Barkhimer’s portrayal, Richard’s disability is handled in a wisely understated manner. Although his left arm is held tight against his chest by a black sling, Barkhimer wears no hump and does not over-emphasize Richard’s limp.
Although there is a dazzling completeness to Richard as a character — which represented a breakthrough for Shakespeare, who wrote “Richard III’’ when he was in his late 20s — a weakness of the play is that the other characters too often function as forgettable spokes to his darkly glittering hub. (Another weakness, champions of Richard would say, is the drama’s historical inaccuracy and pro-Tudor bias.)
Apart from Barkhimer, everyone in Walsh’s fine six-member cast shoulders multiple roles. If you’re not familiar with the play, or even if you are, this doubling is likely to create a challenge when it comes to keeping track of a complicated array of characters embroiled in a tangled historical narrative of power struggles and civil war. For example, Michael Forden Walker plays Clarence, Richard’s doomed brother; the Duke of Buckingham, a co-conspirator who helps Richard secure the coveted crown; and Lord Stanley, a minor character.
One supporting character who does make an impression is old Queen Margaret (an intense Jennie Israel), a spectral presence who stalks the stage spitting out invective toward Richard, punctuated by dire prophecies that come true. Deaon Griffin-Pressley is a vividly charismatic Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, later to be Henry VII, eventual victor over Richard and the darkness he represents in the Battle of Bosworth.
The use of Cambridge’s Swedenborg Chapel as the stage for this “Richard III’’ proves to be a mixed, er, blessing. The church setting undeniably adds a brooding elegance to the production, lends an immediacy to scenes when the actors are close enough to the audience (seated in pews) that we can see the fire in their eyes, and makes possible an effective moment when Barkhimer’s Richard speaks of “a bit of scripture,’’ then casually reaches into a nearby pew and picks up a Bible. The downside is that when there’s an exchange between characters at opposite ends of the church, a certain amount of head-swiveling, as at a tennis match, is required of the audience.
Squinting rather than swiveling is required when the ghosts of Richard’s victims visit him the night before the Battle of Bosworth, a scene that unfolds in near darkness, diminishing its impact. But director Walsh’s subsequent staging of the battle itself as a stylized, slow-motion ballet is a thing of beauty.
Commencing the play as a mere duke, Richard sets out to usurp and eradicate anyone who stands between him and the throne, musing in one soliloquy that their elimination will “leave the world for me to bustle in.’’
And bustle he does, beguiling and deceiving and dissembling with breathtaking audacity. A master manipulator, he confides in and even charms those of us in the audience. Richard commiserates with his brother Clarence while Clarence is being transported to the Tower, professing consternation at such injustice, even though Richard is already plotting his brother’s death. He woos Lady Anne (Mara Sidmore) at the funeral of her husband, whom Richard has murdered. Later, after engineering the killings of the two young sons of Queen Elizabeth (Paula Plum), he informs her that he intends to marry her daughter and presses her for suggestions on how to win the young lady’s heart. In summoning Elizabeth’s blend of fury and incredulity, Plum, who played Martha opposite Barkhimer’s George in “Woolf,’’ is like a volcano barely restraining itself from erupting. She’s not buying what Richard is selling.
Still, despite a track record of leaving in his wake the corpses of anyone foolish enough to trust him, Richard’s charm is such that by the end, when he is on the battlefield crying “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!,’’ you half-expect someone to step up and rashly agree to the bargain.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Swedenborg Chapel, Cambridge, through March 11. Tickets $25-$55, at 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin