David Morden, left, as the Duke of Buckingham, and Joseph McGrath in the title role of The Rogue Theatre's "Richard III."


Comparisons are odious, a famous writer once said.

Yet, Joseph McGrath sort of sets himself up for them casting himself as the title character in The Rogue Theatre's "Richard III," by that same famous writer, William Shakespeare.

This iconic role of the king who was the ultimate in evil manipulators has been brought to ferocious life by the likes of Ian McKellan, Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.

Those are big crowns to fill.

While McGrath doesn't exactly fill them, he does not disappoint.

He has given us a Richard who is charming and vicious, funny and sobering.

Sure, Shakespeare takes credit for much of that, but in the hands of an actor who can't deliver, Richard just becomes a cruel, bulldozing guy. McGrath delivers.

The Rogue's small space makes the horror of this character closer, more palpable, and Friday's opening night audience seemed transfixed by the play's disturbing themes and surprising humor.

McGrath is oily in the role, oozing in and out of scenes as he woos, maneuvers and, over and over again, kills in order to clear a path to the throne.

Cynthia Meier cut the script to keep the story moving and clear. And her direction did the same thing: she made sure the play clipped along at a good pace and that the story - which can get so convoluted that the program outlines who is who - has clarity.

This is a big cast and there were some stilted performances, but there was little that took away from the powerful experience of seeing "Richard III" done well.

Kathryn Kellner Brown was riveting as the spirit of Queen Margaret, who shows up to curse the evil doers - Richard isn't the only one - and returns often to see the curse through. Brown is a magical presence and her Margaret's wrath is thundering.

The Duke of Buckingham starts out as Richard's co-conspirator and ends up his enemy - a transition that David Morden handles with a smooth expertise.

Also faring well is Cynthia Jeffery's Queen Elizabeth, who loses her children at Richard's behest, and still finds the fury and courage to strike back.

Odaiko Sonora's drums contribute to the play's heft as they underscore battles and other pivotal scenes.

"Richard III" is a very bloody play, but most of the killing happens off-stage. In The Rogue's production, every time a character loses his/her life, a head of red cabbage is placed on a stump that sits center stage and is hacked in two. Or three. It's fitting that that stump also serves as the king's throne.

By the end of the play, red cabbage is splayed all over the stage, a testament to the carnage that Richard left behind.

The image is chilling, as is this production. This is one you don't want to miss.

If you go

• What: The Rogue Theatre's production of "Richard III."

• By: William Shakespeare.

• Director: Cynthia Meier.

• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through May 12. There will be an additional 2 p.m. matinee on May 11.

• Where: 300 E. University Blvd., in the Historic Y.

• Tickets: $20 Thursday performances: $30 for all others.

• Reservations, information: theroguetheatre.org or 551-2053.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.