Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Richard II"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Larry Stark


"The Tragedy of
King Richard The Second"

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Woodruff

Set Design by David R. Gammons
Sound Design by Darron L. West
Costume Design by Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design by Stephen Strawbridge
Stage Manager Chris De Camillis

King Richard II................................................Tom Derrah
Henry Bolingbroke................................................Bill Camp
John of Gaunt...................................................Alvin Epstein
Duchess of Gloucester/Duchess of York.....Karen MacDonald
Duke of York...................................John Douglas Thompson
Queen to Richard.......................................................Jodi Lin
Duke of Gloucester/ Earl of Northumberland........John Feltch
Aumerle...............................................................Sean Dugan
Bishop of Carlisle...............................................Remo Airaldi
Bagot................................................................Trevor Oswalt
Green/Prison Keeper.............................................Jim Spencer
BushySir Piers Exton................................................Tim Kang
Lord Ross.............................................................Robert Ross
Richard's Attendant..........................................Darrin Browne
Thomas Mowbray/Sir Stephen Scroop.............Benjamin Evett
Young Man/Lord Willoughby...........................Jonno Roberts
Ensemble:
Jason Beaubier, James Dittami, Seth Reich, Kieran Smiley, Chris Starr

I went to the Loeb Drama Center last night and finally saw the elephant so many critical blind-men have been talking about. The American Repertory Theatre's "Richard II" is the crowning example of what Robert Brustein has given the Boston area: it is the best of plays, it is the worst of plays. When Tom Derrah is essentially alone and naked onstage he gives an eloquently involving lesson in what a permanent member of a repertory company can find in Shakespeare's text. When he is not, he and the company are at the mercy of yet another egregiously self-indulgent director who again does everything possible to upstage the text. What is good here is better than any Shakespeare I have seen on that stage since the "Midsummer" Alvin Epstein directed there in 1980; what is wrong is as wrong as the caterwauling chorus who interrupted that fine show with irrelevant songs from Purcell's "The Faerie Queen". After twenty years, not a damn thing has changed.

Daniel Seltzer once upstaged me by saying his favorite of Shakespeare's sparse stage-directions was not "Exit Antigonus, pursued by a bear" but "Enter Coriolanus, wet." At Loeb, Tom Derrah is vomited up, wet, bald and naked, out of a foot-square "sea" in the polished-wood, listing stage in the middle of the show's first half (Act III Scene ii in the text) --- and the real play begins. He is Richard back from wars in Ireland to find his country in the grip of his own banished cousin and himself eloquently facing enforced abdication, loss of his crown and probably his life. You could enter the auditorium at that point and lose nothing of the melancholy power of this historical tragedy.

From that point Derrah is gloriously alone onstage --- even when surrounded by actors who are asked merely to stand onstage and watch. One of the things he seems to realize is that, in his situation, Richard's only consolations are in language. When his cousin Harry Bolingbroke (Bill Camp) asks God's anointed king to give him his crown it is only Richard's words that confront naked power --- but what words! and what a performance! Bereft of everything, Derrah sits upon the ground to tell sad stories of the death of kings, and faces the death of his kingship, his dank and lonely imprisonment and his doom consoled only by some of the most beautiful poetry ever penned. He lives the text and his work is sublime.

But Director Robert Woodruff does everything he can not in explication of but distraction from the text. Those of us who saw the Pet Brick production of Kit Marlowe's "Edward II" may see A.R.T.'s "Richard II" as an outlandishly overblown and over-decorated exaggeration of that show's more faithful reading of a similar play. Woodruff does the first half of his production (Acts I & II) as though this were not a command performance before good Queen Bess but a camped-up masque for queer Queen James. Admittedly, a living frieze of beefcake-boys, pool-side bath-house behavior, and a farthingaled monarch toddling about playing Clarabel the Clown all make it easy to overlook arid stretches of boring explication. There's even a smidgen of text supporting a homoerotic subtext in these scenes written to explain why Richard's entire people rejected his expensively self-indulgent excesses. But Shakespeare suggested that was more because of his economic extravagances and his abuses of personal power rather than because he insisted on flaunting himself flamboyantly as an out-of-the-closet fruitcake. (In a sense, it looked to me as though Woodruff asked his cast to play out a set of homoerotic improvisations in order to understand what should be a subtext --- but then, rather than putting them in serious costume ready to do the lines with a tinge of this experience, he dumped those improvs full-blown on the stage.)

One aspect of the production would be less clear to me if I hadn't seen the Pet Brick show. Woodruff shifts the scene to Richard's Pomfret Castle prison cell by winching up the entire flat, hardwood square of barren stage to reveal beneath it Tom Derrah hip-deep in a wading pool, studying how he may compare this prison where he lives unto the world. I expected him to howl that he had been kept in the dank sewer of the castle. But those lines are not in Shakespeare's "Richard II" they're in Marlowe's "Edward II". Why impose the ambience of that play on this one? Does Woodruff agree with my wacky friend that, faking his own death, Christopher Marlowe actually wrote all the later, better plays that then had to be signed by a fifteenth-century front?

The scene that begins Part Two of the Loeb production does prove that Director Woodruff is capable of giving physical life to the soul of a text. The conspirators who supported Bolingbroke break into bickering over who really killed the Duke of Gloucester in a silent bath-house prelude provided by the director. They rip off gloves to hurl them as challenges to the feet of others --- and suddenly the wordy wrangling merges with Darron L. West's obnoxiously annoying music-cue that drowns it out while all the courtiers are engaging in glove-throwing matches and Harry Bolingbroke stands alone, for the first time aware of just what a brangling chaos his life will be as King Henry IV. What the staging here does is to explicate the text --- at the very same time it cuts the text. Except for the one act of setting Tom Derrah free to become Richard, this is the only contribution the director makes to making "Richard II" work on stage as a theatrical experience for this century.

The one thing I hold against the Brustein years of A.R.T. excesses is their utter contempt for Shakespeare's words. The actors --- certainly actors like Will Lebow, Alvin Epstein and Tom Derrah --- can handle the lyrical flights and the raw humanity in those lines. They are rarely allowed to do it, however, by directors like Woodruff who see their job not as making those texts coherent and comprehensible in human terms, but as mere excuses for irrelevant embellishments. Derrah, facing an offstage back-stage mirror, and making his silly and completely unnecessary clown-face, and later tottering and flitting in a stupid dress--- is no less an excellent actor than he is alone, naked and eloquent later on. But what the hell has all that the opening bombast to do with the later beauty?

The best of plays
The worst of plays.
The Brustein stamp.


"Richard II" (11 May - 10 June)
A.R.T.
Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, CAMBRIDGE, MA
1 (617) 547-8300


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