Richard IIby William Shakespeare. Directed by Timothy Douglas.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Let us sit on the ground and tell tales of the death of kings."
Jonathan Croy and Jake Berger; photo: Kevin Sprague
When Shakespeare and Company get back to basics the results is nearly always remarkable. So it is with "Richard the Second" or "The Tragedie of Richard the Second" as it should be called since its story of the deposing of a monarch is a true tragedy. Here is an early English king who is not a good man, not a great man, but rather a man who makes judgements that are not always right, but not always wrong either. His court is filled with family and advisors, with friends and enemies alike, and his life is controlled by the two sides of his person, his natural, human side and his body politic. He attempts to do what is right, and what is his right, at the same time and those two versions of his world are not always in sync.
His cousin Henry Bolingbroke wants to be king. He wants it badly and through his actions he banished by Richard for six years. Upon his return, less than 18 months later, he renews his quest for the crown, a "hollow crown" Richard reveals early in the second half of the play, a crown bought and sold and stolen and appropriated and without value except as a symbol of power that can never be secured.
Shakespeare and Company’s new production, starring Rocco Sisto as Richard, is both brilliant and flawed, much as Richard must be, in its world of florid language, an over-abundance of poetry, political motivations that are quixotic and hard to follow and a cast of characters that change constantly with actors doubling in more than one role, sometimes with gender changes for the actors. Twenty-seven characters are played by fourteen actors and some of them don’t really differentiate their characters with clarity. In a more-or-less modern dress edition it becomes hard at times to understand who is saying what to whom and why and how it alters things.
For the most part, though, the actors carry out Shakespeare’s wishes and deliver to the audience and to one another on stage, the right stance, voice and so on to make their characters believable and understandable.
Among the best on stage are Jonathan Croy who plays John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) brilliantly and who comes back in the second half as the First Gardener and brings down the house with his first line about apricots. He is the ideal comic actor for the comedy relief scene in which he plays opposite Jake Berger who is an excellent foil for Croy. Berger returns later with a short monologue and a scene with Richard, both of which are devastating.
As Gaunt’s other nephew, Duke of Amerle, Wolfe Coleman turns in an expert performance. As the son of the Duke and Duchess of York his attendance on Richard and his anger over his cousin Henry’s usurpation eventually bring us to the second comedy relief scene in which his parents plead for leniency for their son. In this scene Kristin Wold takes center stage with Walton Wilson lending his feisty support to the proceedings.
Elizabeth Ingram takes on the Duchess of Gloucester and her "desolate, desolate" speech is wonderful. Two roles later she is the groom, caretaker of Richard’s favorite horse and again is just a treat to watch and listen to in this brief scene. Similarly Rachel Leslie doubles as Ross, a rambunctious kid (formerly Lord Ross) and as Queen, a composite of the two wives of Richard II. She makes both roles memorable but it is her farewell to her husband that is truly a joy to watch and listen to as this play begins to come to an end.
Mostly, though, the play belongs to Tom O’Keefe as Bolingbroke and Rocco Sisto as Richard. Youth against sophistication, temerity opposing solidity is what the two present as the play progresses. O’Keefe has the brashness that is natural to Henry B and he has it in spades. His obvious self-confidence is inescapable and, it seems watching him work, that he has found within his character just the right vehicle for this audacious behavior. He isn’t flashy, but his flesh is solid, too, too solid even, and when he commands he does so with a definitive manner. He is never without a touch of humanity however and that makes him all the more interesting to watch.
Sisto, on the other hand, has a flamboyance that defines his king. Flare and flash are part of his work here, his language so flowery and so formal too. His apparent madness when he confronts his rival cousin and his eventual humiliation of the younger king is nothing short of genius as Sisto plays these and subsequent scenes. By the end of the second half of the evening he could be reading the telephone book, for all that would matter, and still have me believing in the importance and the correctness of his delivery of those lines. This is not just the title role it is, in his hands, the star role.
Fine work is turned in also by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson as both Mowbray and Carlisle, by Johnny Lee Davenport as Northumberland and by Thomas L. Rindge as both Surrey and Willoughby.
On the technical side, the costumes by Lena Sands tell stories and the oddly simple set by Junghyun Georgia Lee does well for this play. Matthew E. Adelson’s dark lighting works for the play but is eventually a strain on the eyes.
The direction of the play with its formal, somewhat danced entrances, is just quirky enough to make the play interesting. Timothy Douglas seems to have paid more attention to the second half rather than the first. The first act is a bit of a drudge with all of its exposition and things we have to know or realize. For those patrons who left after that first half of the show, it’s a real pity because the second half of the play is beautifully cut, brilliantly played and such good theater that you don’t want to miss it at all. Of course, it was the playwright who provided such fine material late in the play, but it is the director who makes that work, and Douglas does a wonderful job doing just that.
Not an easy season for Will S. on the mainstage of this location. An unusual comedy with an unhappy ending and now a tragedy that ends with the demise of a deposed deadwood of a man now dominate this theater with Brecht’s darkest play to follow. At least there are the apricots here to keep us from all getting suicidal. Good theater can have that effect.
Wolfe Coleman and Walton Wilson; photo: Kevin Sprague
Rocco Sisto and Tom O'Keefe; photo: Kevin Sprague
Richard II plays in repertory through July 21 at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company, located at 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.