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Cedar City • At the conclusion of the Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "Richard III," the Earl of Richmond, who will become King Henry VII, sums up, "England hath long been mad, and scarred herself—/ The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,/ The father rashly slaughtered his own son,/ The son, compelled, been butcher to the sire."

His words capture the bloody, violent, dog-eat-dog world of this play, a world where power and paranoia struggle for supremacy. And the person who becomes master of this tumultuous, fractured universe — at least briefly — is one of Shakespeare's most dynamic and ruthless arch villains.

Why are human beings so fascinated by evil? Like us, Shakespeare probably didn't know the answer to that question, but he was brilliant at capitalizing on it. By Richard's own admission, he is "subtle, false and treacherous. ... I am determined to prove a villain." He sails through Shakespeare's compressed — and often inaccurate — chronicle of the final days of the War of the Roses wreaking havoc wherever he turns, cursed even by his own mother. And because he announces his ambitions to the audience at the outset, we become complicit in his malevolent actions.

Not surprisingly, Elijah Alexander's performance drives this production. His Richard is a whirling dervish of diabolical intensity, obsessed and maniacal. Like the proverbial dog with the bone, he fastens onto each murder and betrayal, and that energy propels him to the next one. Alexander transitions beautifully from the calculating charisma he uses to charm and intimidate the play's other characters to the cruel callousness that marks his monologues to the audience. Although he sometimes goes over the top, his performance is mesmerizing; we hate and admire him simultaneously.

Many directors cut the women's scenes to shorten one of Shakespeare's longest plays, but Kathleen Conlin has kept them because she feels they reveal the human cost of war and tyranny; and she has some powerful women to portray them. Leslie Brott's Margaret haunts the stage like Cassandra, prophesying doom and raining curses on her enemies. Kymberly Mellen's Elizabeth vacillates compellingly between her vindictive desire for revenge and overwhelming grief. Carole Healey's Duchess of York realistically assesses the political situation and bewails her losses. Sara Griffin's Lady Anne deftly juggles hatred, loneliness, desire and vulnerability in the scene where Richard woos her.

The supporting performances are uniformly strong. Christian Barillas turns Clarence's death scene into a litany of guilt and remorse; Roderick Peeples' Duke of Buckingham jockeys for control of his fate like a snake-oil salesman; and Michael Harding's palsied King Edward desperately tries to stay in charge. Ben Jacoby (Hastings), Andy Nograj (Stanley), Jeb Burris (Catesby), AJ Smithey (Ratcliffe), and Matt Mueller (Richmond) are also impressive.

Conlin's direction is fluid throughout, and she creates some compelling stage pictures, often counterpointing action on the stage below against the figures of the innocent young princes or vengeful Margaret on the balcony above.

Bill Forrester's stark wooden tower/scaffold set with its iron grille and gates suggests both protection and entrapment. Donna Ruzika's moody lighting modulates from white spots to subtle blue, gold and red. David Kay Mickelsen's richly detailed, dark costumes capture the somber spirit of the time. Barry Funderburg's comprehensive sound design features drums, bells and majestic music. T. Anthony Marotta's fight choreography is dramatic and exciting.

"Richard III" is an early Shakespeare history, and some of the writing is repetitive and melodramatic, but Alexander's performance and the emotional power of this production easily carry audiences past any limitations in the text. And there's always that attraction to evil … —

'Richard III'

P Bottom line • The Utah Shakespeare Festival's production of "Richard III" is strong stuff, but it rewards its audience with dynamic performances, insightful direction and the rich creation of its dramatic world.

When • Reviewed on July 1; in rotating repertory with two other productions Mondays through Saturdays at 8 through Sept. 3

Where • Utah Shakespeare Festival on the campus of Southern Utah University, 300 W. Center St., Cedar City

Running time • Three hours (including an intermission)

Tickets • Admission is $22 to $71 with discounts for groups, students and seniors. Tickets and information available at 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or