Times-Dispatch Review of "Richard II"
'Richard II' a true thrill to behold
Shakespeare troupe serves history play on a silver platter
Sunday, Oct 14, 2007 - 12:08 AM Updated: 06:37 AM
By SUSAN HAUBENSTOCK
I've left plays at intermission only twice in my life. Twenty-five years ago I walked out of an off-Broadway performance of "Richard II" starring no less a figure than William Hurt as Richard. It was crashingly, stultifyingly dull.
Richmond Shakespeare has redeemed "Richard" for me.
In a thrilling production of Shakespeare's history play -- prequel to the company's "Henry IV, Part 1" from their summer season at Agecroft Hall -- director James Ricks shows how successful the company's signature approach can be.
Focusing on language, with pared-down cast, simple lighting effects and virtually no set, Ricks conducts an exciting cast of actors who illuminate the captivating drama. Aided mightily by Rebecca Cairns' rich costumes, and with a minimal but effective sound design of his own making, Ricks manages the beautiful verse of the playwright and the unparalleled energy of the actors with aplomb.
I can see William Hurt being a bore as King Richard II. It's a very talky role, and it takes a special actor to make him anything other than pitiable and annoying.
Fortunately, our Mike Newman is a very, very special actor, who doesn't speak the words so much as attack them. I'm amazed every night at Richard's strength and dignity, the real nobility of his spirit growing as his worldly nobility is stripped away.
As anyone who has talked with me recently knows, Richard II is my favorite play in the entire Shakespearean canon. I love the themes, the language is arguably Shakespeare's best, and it interests me far more as a psychological study than even Hamlet. Richard is a great role, but it's Henry Bolingbroke who really intrigues me. Jeff Schmidt has wrapped himself around the future King Henry IV in a performance that matches or exceeds his superb Antony last year.
But the actor I'm really excited about is Stephen Ryan, and I'm so pleased that Ms. Haubenstock picked him out as well. Stephen is an unusual actor type (I know the feeling) and it's got to be somewhat rare for him to find a role that fits his natural strengths as well as the Duke of York does. York is strong and passionate in some instances, but weak and indecisive in others, and his decision to remain neutral in the civil conflict renders all King Richard's military might completely impotent. Stephen's performance is one of my favorites in the show because you can always see the strength of York in his weakness, and his weakness in his strength. It's just great.
The whole cast is excellent, if I do say so myself, on a very similar level to those of Henry IV, Part I or The Taming of the Shrew. I love the whole cast. Elise Boyd's dignified Bishop of Carlisle, Jude Fageas' unforgettable rehearsal humor and Lord Jamal, Jennie Meharg's wounded yet towering Queen Isabel, Julie Phillips' seven disparate characters, Stephen Seals playing both Jeff's father and mine with total commitment, and John Witkiewicz's marvelously smarmy Aumerle combine for a marvelous ensemble. James Ricks was one of my favorite directors ever; we never seemed to be working very hard yet so much got done so quickly. Stage Manager Heather Johnson, tiny little thing that she is, brilliantly manages to keep all ten of us pointed in the right direction. And Rebecca and Annie knock the costumes out of the park once again.
I hope you'll all come out to see it.