Richard III runs through Oct. 7; Seattle Shakespeare Company and upstart crow collective at Leo K. Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes; tickets $30-$55; available at 206-733-8222 or online at

He’s the villain we all love to hate: A lying, manipulative, scheming, treacherous, sociopathic charlatan has taken control of the country. 

No, not that one, but Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” a gripping portrait of a vicious villain’s rise and fall from power that has fascinated theatergoers, historians and scholars since 1592.

Directed by the brilliantly talented Rosa Joshi, Seattle Shakespeare Company opens its 2018-2019 season with “Richard III,” another collaboration with the upstart crow collective. The two companies join together again to present their all-female acting company in the Bard’s epic history/tragedy. The production runs through Oct. 7 in the Leo K. Theatre at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

While you’re waiting for the eighth season of Games of Thrones, SSC and upstart crow collective’s triumphant production takes on Shakespeare’s male-dominated, murderous world and turns it on its ear. [Note: It has also been hinted that the historical war between the York and Tudor dynasty was inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed book and television series Game Of Thrones.]

Every role — king to servant, dukes and prince — is played by a woman, 14 in all, who embody more than twice that number of roles on stage. They take on traditionally male roles and pour skill and passion into every portrayal. They fight in battle scenes and wrestle foes to the ground, all while delivering the Bard’s iambic pentameter with power and perfection. The result is dynamic, daring and dazzling.

What began in 2017 with the highly praised all-female production of “Bring Down the House” (Henry VI trilogy), the upstart crow collective returns to SSC to collaborate on “Richard III.” The bloody saga completes the Wars of the Roses and ends the York dynasty. 

“Richard III” reigns as the Bard’s super bad-ass villain. As the play begins, he is the Duke of Gloucester and jealous of his brother King Edward IV.  Evil, corrupt and sadistic, Richard has his eye on the throne. The last son of the royal York dynasty, he is as charming as he is cunning. Deformed in body and twisted in mind, he blithely plots and executes the murders of his brother, his nephews, his former friends, and anyone else who stands between himself and the English throne — a grand total of 13.

The amazing Sarah Harlett returns to play the title role of Richard. (She played the Duke of Gloucester in Bring Down the House.”) Sly and slick, Harlett is a tour de force, pitting people against each other with delight, while callously plotting their demise. Her performance shows the many sides of Richard. From conniving and cunning to narcissistic gloating. From deceit and mendacity to feigned friendliness. From calculating political machinations to sardonic and cackling irony.

Rather than the traditional huge hump donned by Shakespearean actors, Harlett suggests deformity; her uselessly twisted arm hangs at her side as if Gorilla-Glued in place.

Harlett brings down the house, but she doesn’t do it alone.

Mari Nelson, as his mother the Duchess of York, realizes that she’s spawned a monster. That doesn’t stop her from becoming a murderer. Kate Wisniewski endows Margaret, King Henry VI’s widow, with hate-filled madness. As vulnerable Lady Anne, Porscha Shaw masters a range of emotion, when taken off guard and duped into marrying Richard (even knowing he murdered her father-in-law and husband). Then, in a wonderful theatrical twist, Shaw also plays Richard’s victorious foil, the noble Earl of Richmond.

As Richard’s sister-in-law Elizabeth, Betsy Schwartz must deal with the loss of her sons, sent to the Towers of London, never to be seen again. Lured by Richard’s false promises, the always lovely Suzanne Bouchard takes on a dark role as Richard’s co-conniving wingman, the greedy and ruthless Duke of Buckingham. When he hesitates to carry out one of Richard’s perfidious plans, he too makes Richard III’s must-do-in list and flees for his life, only to lose his head later.  

Joshi sets a fierce and unrelenting pace in the director’s chair. Thanks to Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s angular set, with its cables and blocks, along with Geoff Korf’s equally innovative lighting design of darkness and shadows, it never lets up. And sound designers Meghan Roche and Robertson Witmer have amplified the cables to mimic a giant stringed instrument, creating an eerie atmosphere that welcomes intrigue, battle and murder.

Theater companies across the country are featuring all-female casts. SSC was the first major theater in Seattle to do so. And last season, Seattle Rep did the same in a highly original production of “Macbeth,” with seven high school-age girls roleplaying Shakespeare’s infamous characters.

Some of the greatest actors in the world have played Richard III: from Edmund Kean, John Barrymore, Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Kenneth Branagh to Al Pacino, Denzel Washington, Benedict Cumberbatch and Peter Dinklage. Vincent Price even took on the role under Roger Corman’s direction. And John Wilkes Booth played Richard three years before he assassinated President Lincoln.

It’s high time for a gender change. Add Sarah Harlett’s name to the list.