Saturday, November 25, 2017

Richard II (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Richard II is not an often-done play by Shakespeare.  One can see why.  No love story after all.  No obvious villain. The central character begins with all of us wanting to punch him in the face.  With a hammer.  Several times.

Yet it contains some of the most powerful speeches the author ever wrote, about  powerful ideas to be sure, important ones, but rooted firmly in one individual's personal love and heartache and pain.  Chase What Flies last year managed to do Cymbeline and do it extraordinary justice.  I eagerly looked forward to seeing what they might do with this one!

In essence, the play reveals England's plight under a bad king.  This sounds simple enough, and to modern sensibilities we probably bad king, so we overthrow him!  But this play eschews such melodrama for complexity. 

Richard (Frank Weidner) begins the play with a problem. Two of his nobles, his friend the Duke of Norfolk (Nicole Knudson) and his own cousin Bolingbroke (Celia Mandela) hate each other and accuse each other of treason.  Law and tradition give them the right to trial by combat. Before the battle may commence, Richard peremptorily banishes them both from England, Bolingbroke for some years and Norfolk for life.  Seems almost like something ordinary, does it not? Yet in the King's attitude and his actions we see the seeds of disaster.  That is the story of the play, how events now combine -- Game of Thrones like, minus so much sex (sorry) -- to bring a bad king down.  Because King Richard has been uncareful with his funds, and once he needs to put down rebels he needs money.  As his uncle Bolingbroke's uncle, John of Gaunt (William Dennis Hunt) feels his last breath coming, he tells Richard what this monarch doesn't want to hear.  So when John dies, Richard seizes all his uncle's estate to pay for the war.  His last living uncle, the Duke of York (Gilbert Martinez), objects.  He calls for rule of law above all else, for how save by inheritance is Richard even king?

Sure enough, not too long before other nobles (Christine Avila, Max Lawrence) feel threatened and pledge their soldiers to support Bolingbroke, who returns to claim his inheritance.

In the hands of a lesser playwright -- and a less talented, skilled and well-directed company -- at this point we might see Richard as a mere tyrant, Bolingbroke as a hero.  But no.  Calamity shows us the human side of Richard. He has been foolish, not cruel.  He is weak, not evil.  Wrong, not stupid -- and he sees his doom approaching with dreadful clarity.

Likewise Bolingbroke and his followers calmly lie to those who challenge them, claiming to be loyal to Richard even while executing his best friends (James Ferrero, Taylor Jackson Ross).  Okay, so is Bolingbroke the villain?  No.  He's much too willing to pardon given a chance, as he does to the Bishop of Carlisle (Tippi Thomas) and the Duke of Aumerle (Jordan Klompt) when they conspire against him.  This wonderful tapestry of characters including Richard's Queen (Victoria Yvonne Martinez), the Duchess of York (Debi Tinsley) and many others plays out with no obvious, easy answer to the questions it poses. Not only the play, but the entire cast weaves us this series of knots and entwining hopes in a tour-de-force of leaving an audience having to make decisions and answers for themselves.

What could have been a soap opera in iambic pentameter and cool costumes instead ends up a compelling story of power politics reshaping people's lives, for good and ill and all things in between.  Every word and deed in Richard II costs somebody something, and this production never lets you forget it! Nobody and everybody is to blame.  Everybody and nobody is a hero.  Just like real life.

Richard II plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm with a special Thursday performance on November 30 at 8pm.  Its final show will be December 3, 2017 at the Studio/Stage Theatre 520 North Western Avenue (south of Melrose) Los Angeles CA 90004.

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