Monday, April 16, 2012

“Richard II” - A Timely Political Drama

By Judd Hollander

As seen through the eyes of director J.R. Sullivan, the Pearl Theatre Company delivers an illuminating production of William Shakespeare's Richard II; one filled with sarcasm, wit, and harsh political irony.

In late 14th century England, King Richard II (Sean McNall) rules with an iron hand and velvet glove. A bit of a fop and wastrel, he is perhaps too eager to listen to his ever-present flatterers, personified here by Bagot (Charlie Francis Murphy), Bushy (Simon Kendall), and Green (Robin Leslie Brown); persons who are more interested in advancing their own interests rather than doing what's good for the country. There is also the lingering suspicion Richard had a hand in the death of his uncle, the much-beloved Earl of Gloucester.

When Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford (Grant Goodman), and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Chris Mixon), who are preparing to face off in a duel, refuse the King's request to put down their arms, they find themselves banished from the kingdom. However, Bolingbroke will not go into the gentle good night of lonely wondering, instead gathering an army of supporters to go up against the King. Bolingbroke quickly finds he has no lack of allies, especially after the King seizes Bolingbroke's lands in order to help pay for a war in Ireland; a fate other nobles fear may also happen to them.

The beginning of Shakespeare's history play cycle, (Bolingbroke will eventually become Henry VI), Richard II is one of the Bard's more overtly political works. It also helps that much of the circumstances presented are particularly timely today, given the current economic situation in the United States and much of Europe.

The play also contains an interesting commentary on how people manage to convince themselves of the righteousness of their actions. Such as Bolingbroke's attempt to reclaim his landed birthright, which then becomes a chance for him to seize control of the throne. This premise becomes even more evident via the Duke of York (Bill Christ) who, though he despises Richard's rule, remains steadfastly loyal to the King until Bolingbroke convinces him to switch sides. Yet when those sympathetic to Richard try to save him, York accuses those involved, includes his own son, of treason. All of which shows how the concept of loyalty can shift with the prevailing winds.

Fascinating as the story may be, there is no getting around the excess verbiage in the text, which tends to slow things down, especially in the introductory scenes. In addition, with such a strong emphasis placed on Richard, Bolingbroke and York in this production, others characters tend to fall by the wayside. It would have been nice for example to learn more about Bagot, Bushy and Green, not to mention better integrating Jolly Abraham into the proceedings as Richard's Queen. Ms. Abraham does get a chance to shine in her few brief scenes, but her efforts feel somewhat removed from the rest of the action. Additionally, having 12 actors play 30 characters is admirable, but with the same people playing multiple roles, things tend to get confusing at times - such as with Mixon playing both Mowbray and Northumberland.

McNall makes a wonderful Richard, a man wise beyond his years, playing the role with an inner peace, secure in the knowledge his motives are just and also getting in numerous biting and telling comments about political realities. Goodman is very good as the ambitious Bolingbroke, an embittered nobleman wanting to return from exile in triumph, but never quite counting on the strings that come attached to all he usurps. Other strong performances include Christ as York, Abraham as Queen Isabella and Carol Schultz as the sometimes hilariously hysteria-driven Duchess of York.

Sullivan's direction is a bit of a mixed bag, working better as the play moves forward, his efforts being especially strong in the scenes with Richard. While there is little humor present in the text, other than in Richard's irony-laden speeches, Sullivan does present an interesting take on one of the final scenes, effectively playing it for laughs and changing the feeling from utter seriousness to almost eye-rolling comedy.

Harry Feiner's set is strongly atmospheric and the various costumes by Martha Hally are nicely subdued, the darker garments most of the characters wear a marked contrast to a bright red robe and other ornamental trappings Richard dons. Sound design by Jane Shaw is quite good.

This production of Richard II doesn't hit on all cylinders, but it's still a very interesting and absorbing production, with McNall turning in one of the best performances of the title role in recent memory.

Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Scenic Design: Harry Feiner
Costume Design: Martha Hally
Lighting Design: Stephen Petrilli
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Dramaturg: Kate Farrington
Voice & Text Direction: Dudley Knight
Fight Direction: Rob Kinter
Assistant to the Director: David Ian Lee
Movement Coach: Kali Quinn
Production Stage Manager: Dale Smallwood

Jolly Abraham (Queen, Harry Percy)
Robin Leslie Brown (Duchess of Gloucester, Green, Gardener's Assistant, Murderer 1) Wayne T. Carr (Duke of Aumerle, Lord Willoughby, Keeper of the Prison)
Bill Christ (Duke of York)
Dominic Cuskern (Lord Marshal, Lord Salisbury, Abbot of Westminster, Groom, York's Servant)
Grant Goodman (Henry Bolingbroke)
Simon Kendall (Bushy, Sir Stephen Scroop Lord Fitzwater, Murderer 2)
Dan Kremer (John of Gaunt, Gardener)
Sean McNall (Richard II)
Chris Mixon (Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland
Charlie Francis Murphy (Bagot, Lord Berkeley, Welsh Captain, Sir Pierce of Exton) Carol Schultz (Bishop of Carlisle, Lady Attending the Queen, Duchess of York)

Presented by the Pearl Theatre Company
New York City Center, Stage II

131 West 55th Street

Running time: 3 hours, with one intermission

Closed: December 24, 2011

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