Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Thomas of Woodstock"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi


"THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK"

by [Anonymous]
Directed by Michael Hammond

King Richard II, son of Edward the Black Prince…..Pablo Espinosa
UNCLES OF KING RICHARD: Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of England…..Seth Reich
John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster…..James Gash
Edmund of Langley, Duke of York…..Chris L. Butterfield
Earl of Arundel, Lord Admiral of England…..Jason Williams
Earl of Surrey…..Courtney Rader
Sir Thomas Cheyney, Attendant of the Duke of Gloucester…..Elizabeth Carbonell
FAVORITES OF KING RICHARD:
Sir Henry Green….Vivek Gomber
Sir Edward Bagot…..Christopher Reed
Sir William Bushy…..David Kane
Sir Thomas Scroope…..Gretchen Akers
Lord Mayor of London…..Freddy Franklin
Sir Robert Tresilian, a lawyer, afterwards Lord Chief Justice…..Danny O'Connor
Nimbe, Assistant to Tresilian…..Jason Grossman
A Spruce Courtier, messener from the King…..Freddy Franklin
LAW OFFICERS UNDER TRESILIAN:
Crosby…..Michael Maccarone

Fleming…..Josh Zagoren
Simon Ignorance, Bailiff of Dunstable…..Danny O'Connor
Cowtail, a grazier…..Chris L. Butterfield
Butcher…..Jason Williams
Farmer…..James Gash
Schoolmaster…..Julia Owens
The Schoolmaster's Servant…..Sarah Donovan
A Man Who Whistles Treason…..Courtney Rader
The Shrieve (Sheriff) of Kent…..Elizabeth Carbonell
The Shrieve (Sheriff) of Northumberland…..James Gash
Sir William Lapoole, Governor of Calais…..Paul Robinson
Sir Pierce of Exton…..Paul Robinson
First Murderer…..Michael Maccarone
Second Murderer…..Josh Zagoren
LADIES OF THE COURT:
Anne of Bohemia, wife of King Richard and Queen of England…..Sarah Donovan
Duchess of Gloucester, wife of Thomas of Woodstock…..Julia Owens
Duchess of Ireland, divorced wife of Robert de Vere, a former favorite of King Richard…..Victoria Ullmann
Cynthia, a personage in a masque…..Gretchen Akers
Horse…..Paul Robinson

I sing now of Emerson College's production of THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK, which flourished for one weekend and departed, and 'tis sad for 'twas most excellent.

The text of THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK exists as an Elizabethan prompt book dating from 1592 – its author, unknown; its ending, missing. In the program's notes, Dramaturg Michael Egan argues that this THOMAS was written by Shakespeare himself, as Part One to his own RICHARD II (thus, "Part Two"). I am in no position to yay or nay Mr. Egan's argument, but upon seeing Emerson's production and having just read the script, I will say that whoever be the author, THOMAS is a fascinating introduction to RICHARD II, answering several questions that may puzzle audiences not familiar with that play's background.

The title character is one Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of England (that is, he rules the land until the appointed sovereign comes of age). Thomas, along with his brothers John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and Edmund of Langley (Duke of York) are gravely concerned for England's future because their young nephew, Richard, son of the late King Edward, has fallen under the sway of a quartet of flatterers – Greene, Bagot, Bushy and Scroope – and already shows signs of being an unsuitable ruler, living in luxury by squeezing his countrymen dry. The clash between the beloved, plain-spoken Thomas and the hated, flamboyant Richard forms the crux of the play. In addition to Thomas, Richard, Lancaster, York and the flatterers are Anne of Bohemia (Richard's new bride and Queen, but soon dead), Tresilian (a most cunning lawyer, appointed by Richard to be Chief Justice of the land), Nimble (Tresilian's "devil"), the Duchess of Gloucester (Thomas' wife, later widow), and assorted townsfolk, messengers, murderers, etc. – the stuff of Elizabethan drama. Thomas, taken prisoner by Richard, is murdered in his cell – foreshadowing Richard's own fate in "Part Two". Surprisingly, [Anonymous] does not give Thomas a final aria; here is his death scene (while writing a letter of reconciliation to Richard):

WOODSTOCK:
So help me Heaven, I know not what to write,
what style to use, nor how I should begin:
my method is too plain, to greet a King.
I will nothing say to excuse or clear myself,
for I have nothing done that needs excuse;
but tell him plain, though here I spend my blood.
I wish his safety and all England's good.

1ST MURDERER:
Creep close to his back, ye rogue, be ready with the towel,
when I have knocked him down, to strangle him.

2ND MURDERER:
Do it quickly whilst his back is towards ye, ye damned villain;
if thou lettest him speak but a word, we shall not kill him.

1ST MURDERER:
I will watch him for that, down on your knees and creep, ye rascal.

WOODSTOCK:
Have mercy, God! My sight of the sudden fails me.
I cannot see my paper, my trembling fingers will not hold my pen.
A thick congealed mist overspreads the chamber.
I will rise and view the room.

And thus, Plain Thomas is murdered. The text abruptly stops with Nimble betraying his master Tresilian to save his own skin when the tides turn against them. (Mr. Egan writes, "Most likely [the ending] was removed for the same reason the deposition scene was originally cut from RICHARD II: it showed the king deposed.") The added-on ending used in the Emerson production (and written by….?) closed the play with Richard seeing the errors of his ways, banishing his flatterers and being reinstated as King of England. (There is a brilliant little moment when Richard kneels before Lancaster to be crowned once again, and Lancaster – in disgust – simply hands the crown to his nephew to put it on himself. So much for ceremony!)

In RICHARD II, of course, Richard continues his excesses, three of his flatterers remain in favor – including Greene, who is slain in THOMAS; there is still a Queen (Anne, or a new bride?); and Thomas' murder still casts a shadow on Richard's professed innocence. Aside from Green's resurrection, THOMAS and RICHARD can play together very nicely, though the former lacks the latter's music. (Again, to quote Mr. Egan, "Much of [THOMAS'] language and poetry is not of [RICHARD's] quality, perhaps because it was written for the provincial tour of 1592-3 (when London' playhouses were closed due to the plague). We can infer this from, among other things, the fact that in a key scene a live horse is brought onstage: impossible in a closed theater … but easy enough in an open space. … The play's bold politics, openly supporting rebellion against the king, also suggests freedom from the censorious court hand in London.")

Director Michael Hammond, long associated with Shakespeare & Company, chose to direct the play in period (bravo!), and scenic designer Tim Jozwick converted the Brimmer Studio Theatre into a perfect little Globe to house its traffic (a three-quarter theatre-in-the round with upper levels). What could have been a pageant of fancy dress and empty declaiming became, under Mr. Hammond's guidance, a lively, bread-and-meat evening in the theatre; and Mr. Hammond was blessed with a superb cast of student actors – down to the smallest role – many of whom could sing the score (directors, start scouting our colleges for tomorrow's actors – and may they choose to stay in our vicinity, too!). Much of THOMAS was played for comedy and, upon reading the script, I can vouch for its rowdy humor – no doubt intended for those provincial audiences (blessedly, there were no tugging at crotches, and other lewd attempts at "Elizabethan" humor). The first half hour of the performance proved confusing in terms of who was who – Richard, obviously, was the one wearing the crown – and required keeping an open program on your lap. Thus, a reading of the play would prove useful when attending future productions.

Mr. Hammond clearly sided with Richard and his followers (spoiled youngsters, all – like its college audience?), and he and his actors made them a most entertaining collection of rascals. Whereas THOMAS and RICHARD merely hint at the degree of Richard's involvement with his flatterers, everything was very much "out" in the open on the Brimmer stage, and this production briefly laid claim to being the gayest show in town (in both senses of the word), with a veritable gallery of styles that ranged from Pablo Espinosa's feline Richard (swaggering/swaying like Dr. Frank N. Furter) to the sleek exquisiteness of Vivek Gomber and Christopher Reed (Green and Bagot); from the rotund daintiness of Jason Grossman's Nimble to the haughtiness of Michael Maccarone and Josh Zagoren (henchman Crosby and Fleming) and capped by Mr. Freddy Franklin's hilarious oh-my-DEAR turn as the Spruce Courtier (imagine Leontyne Price playing Louise Jefferson). Watching over them like a winking papa bear was Danny O'Connor's Tresilian, very much the crooked lawyer; ah, but a jolly, almost benevolent, one. (Mr. O'Connor also doubled as the satirical Simon Ignorance, Bailiff of Dunstable – a topknot of hair poking out from beneath his hood, and "pestiferous" ever on his lips).

Compared with Ye Boys in the Band, the "good" characters came off as solemn members of the Establishment (i.e., PARENTS) and weren't much fun, but Seth Reich – dignified and in excellent voice – led them in his moving portrayal of Plain Thomas. As if to redress the balance, Mr. Hammond gave James Gash, Chris L. Butterfield, Jason Williams and Courtney Rader (respectively Lancaster, York, Arundel and Surrey) each a crack at showing their comic skills as bumpkins who got caught up in Tresilian's schemes and lost their property (and lives?) as a result (tall, beanpole-like Mr. Butterfield in particular drew laughs from his antic running around like the proverbial chicken sans head). As the one true Queen of this production, Sarah Donovan had little to do but sigh and cry and lie and die (Out Woman Out, you could say). And Paul Robinson was a scene-stealing Horse, hair in his eyes like an uncombed mane and nuzzling Mr. Reich in Thomas' philosophical aria to the beast.

Andrew Poleszak's costumes alone were reason enough to attend this THOMAS – well-researched, colorful and – for a college production – quite lavish, and nicely contrasting the simple homespun of Thomas and his brothers against the silks and brocades of Richard and his court. (When the Duchess of Ireland strayed within my proximity, I studied at leisure her lovely dress, all encrusted in gold, green and brown, and longed to roll the fabric between my fingers.) Mr. Poleszak's tongue-in-cheek designs for the flatterers' succumbing to the latest continental fashions proved to be the show's visual highlight – in particular, floppy hats that would have made a sultan (or mushroom) proud and elongated slippers that resembled turned-up gravy boats with silver chains linking toe to knee (the script calls them 'polonian shoes'). Even the walk-on characters were costumed so RIGHT, as if they stepped from a Bruegel canvas.

A minor quibble: the murder of Thomas was almost played as slapstick, with one Murderer nearly smothering the other by mistake – and at the end of the scene, in half-light, the dead Thomas quickly arose and beat a hasty retreat. But Ted Hewlett's fight choreography was impressive enough: the Battle Scene started in slow motion, which – aesthetically – shouldn't have worked amidst so much period fidelity, but the retardation of advancing warriors automatically lent an epic quality to the two tiny armies battling it out (and the actors were quite good, too; most of them actually fought instead of wiping their blades together like butter knives – Mr. Robinson even threw in some fancy flourishes as a bonus.)

So – bravos all around and my thanks to Mr. Hammond & Company for bringing us this THOMAS, regardless of how brief its run. And when this production departed, I hope it took all those hard, uncomfortable Brimmer Studio benches along with it. Had the benches at the Globe been as uncomfortable, you would have soon found me standing among the groundlings.

[For a copy of THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK, go to: http://www.hampshireshakespeare.org/notes/TOWmain.html , but the ending is not the one used for the Emerson production. ]

"Thomas of Woodstock" (27 February – 3 March)
EMERSON STUDIO THEATRE
69 Brimmer Street, BOSTON MA
1 (617) 824-8000

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