RII: Theater Review

Paige Lindsey White John Sloan Jim Ortlieb R II - H 2013
Ed Krieger
Nipped and tucked reconceptualization of Richard II for only three players affords continually interesting fresh perspectives in one of Shakespeare’s great late quartet of history plays. 

Shakespeare's 'Richard II' is given a nip and tuck in Pasadena.

Richard II represents a watershed in the political history of the English monarchy: the first deposing of a divinely succeeding king by military force, ushering in the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, as noble families bloodily contended for this “hollow crown,” during which four of seven sovereigns would die violently. Richard’s cousin Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV, here volcanically incarnated by a female actor, the buff and igneous Paige Lindsey White, who could also play a mean Hotspur or Prince Hal) is first exiled and then divested of his inherited estate by a feckless Richard (John Sloan), who is seeking to finance a suppression of an early Irish rebellion. He raises troops and ships to invade in Richard’s absence and seize the throne.

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Cutting and pasting has done violence to Shakespeare’s texts from time immemorial, yet it has also often been a useful means to manipulate them to extract otherwise obscured meanings. Orson Welles was schooled in dramaturgy at the Todd School for Boys by scissoring up the Bard and later made the finest of Shakespearean movies in that same spirit (Chimes at Midnight, Macbeth, Othello). Indeed, a good case can be urged that in today’s theater, it makes less sense to endeavor to mount a “definitive” production (the most recent standard being The Old Globe rendering starring the unsurpassable Mark Rylance) than to find a relevant and penetrating way of illuminating those themes most intriguing to the artists and conveying them vividly to the audience.

Jessica Kubzansky, co-artistic director at Boston Court, has juggled the speeches, condensed the text by at least a third and reduced the number of characters by half, with White and Jim Ortlieb assaying all the others save Richard. The elemental set alternates as either court or prison, and Kubzansky starts with a soliloquy from the end of the play wherein Richard looks back at what has happened to him, thereby situating the subsequent action in flashback and squarely within his own head, the two other actors of each gender projections of his divided self, as he says:

“I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world …
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world … ”

Shakespeare’s concept of Richard in his passivity and fatalism may suggest an embryonic Hamlet, though in Sloan’s realization of Kubzansky’s take, he is more callow and self-absorbed, too regal to be bratty yet recognizable as a variation on the privileged entitlement we encounter in our own society — and, in his own benighted way, an actor to his core. Similarly, casting his nemesis as a woman seems not entirely gender-blind, with reverberant implications of today’s rapidly evolving roles in which, while male dominance persists, it is frankly subject to inevitable transition.

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Although all three players are magnetically exemplary and handle the verse with offhand command (and Richard II boasts more relentless verse than most Shakespeare, especially among the histories), and Richard conscientiously identifies each new character by name as “he” appears, it can be difficult for the audience to keep up with the cue-drilled performers without the visual shorthand of seeing different faces and bodies for each part. Sometimes this casting gambit can devolve, almost of necessity, into vestiges of a stunt. Yet while this great, less-heralded work can become, even in the most accomplished staging, a tad enervating (particularly at full-length), RII maintains its energy and daring throughout and reclaims the poetry and insight of the original with unstinting immediacy and clarifying forthrightness.

Venue: The Theatre @ Boston Court, Pasadena (runs through Oct. 13)

Cast: John Sloan, Paige Lindsey White, Jim Ortlieb

Director: Jessica Kubzansky

Playwright: William Shakespeare, adapted from "Richard II" by Jessica Kubzansky

Set & projection designer: Kaitlyn Pietras

Lighting designer: Jeremy Pivnick

Sound designer: John Zalewski

Costume designer: Jenny Foldenauer