I've rarely seen a Shakespeare play in Pittsburgh so superbly realized: Richard III, produced by the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, stuns and stirs. Director Matt Gray's remarkable conception surges with disturbing vitality. In every role, even small ones, the students do remarkable justice to the text. Clearly they have been excellently prepared by voice coach Janet Madele Feindel; their words come across with clarity and depth.
That clarity is needed, given the dark intricacies of this sinister nightmare. To follow these twists, an advance grasp of the royal families and how they relate to each other is helpful. The good program notes help, as does a lobby genealogy chart. But even if you don't understand all the relationships, you can get the basics. Richard would become king. He plots and kills his way to the throne.
Gray's images are contemporary, evoking eternal evils, reminding us of how greed for power knows no bounds, how deception and treachery rule. Those who stand in the way meet cruel fates; those who seek to preserve themselves fall into obsequious self-abasement.
In this black-and-white, brutal environment, movement choreographer Brian Easley compellingly thrusts bodies into violent movement. Helmeted soldiers stomp in thundering unison. Richard twists and lunges like a snake. Mad Queen Margaret crawls onto the ground from off her motorized wheelchair looking like a Komodo dragon. Meanwhile, characters literally on the rise, or on their way down, walk a bare steel stairway. Oddly shaped panels dangle and twist, recalling Dr. Caligari's cabinet. A crippled servant constantly cleans blood off the floors. TV monitors go to gray, probing faces. Shadows shimmer on the walls, or pulse on the bodies of bloody ghosts. And the innocent Clarence and fading King Edward look as pale as grave-bound shrouds.
Of course, Richard dominates the action and actor Gabriel King makes the tortured, distorted soul indelible. Everything he says and does accumulates into a thorough, convincing portrait, even as this senior CMU student metamorphoses from someone squirming through and over every obstacle to standing strong and sure.
But really this becomes an impressive ensemble in which many of the more than 30 performers add special dimensions. Note particularly compelling, fearsome Daisy Hobbs as Queen Margaret and admire Skye Scott's convincing frailty as King Edward.
The experience equals the quality and intensity of any professional Shakespeare production you could have seen here in recent years.
Richard III continues through April 24. Philip Chosky Theater, CMU campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407 or www.cmu.edu/cfa/drama/