An Anointed King
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC) continues to thrive in their new downtown Baltimore home with an exquisite production of Richard II. While it is one of the Bard’s lesser known works, it being slightly unfamiliar creates an excellent opportunity for a refreshing night of theater – which this was! Not to take anything away from any unseen or previously staged CSC productions, but it was rewarding to spend an evening with Richard than another night with Lear, Hamlet or that Scottish King.
Richard II deals with the clash of a weak king who seems himself as divine and the changing political world of the War of the Roses. The plot is much more intricate than that, of course, but that element provides the tension for the evening. Deceit, treachery and good old fashioned treason all play a huge part in the downfall of Richard. It’s safe to admit that the political intricacies of Richard II may account for the fact that it doesn’t get its fair share of productions stateside and that is a shame. It contains beautiful language – including a lack of prose, which usually applies to the “commoners” in Shakespeare-ese – and rich characterization that can stand up against anything else he’s written. In this modern age where so many Americans are enthralled with highly serialized, dense and political television programming – I couldn’t help but think of Game of Thrones in hearing the York (Stark) and Lancaster (Lannister) names thrown about – this production comes in at the right time.
CSC’s production has a wonderful design team for Richard II. Daniel O’Brien once again wears three hats – Technical Director, as well as Scenic and Lighting Designer – and he creates an enthralling environment. The starkness of the blank stage (save for some sparse furniture) is enhanced by the effective lighting, which is almost always bringing in some bleeding red. Scott Farquhar has also brought another level of strength to this production with the music he has selected – old English tunes that work well to bring you right to the year of 1398. They are performed nicely by Kate Forton, James Jager, Seamus Miller, and Jack Plowe. Costume Designer Heather Jackson represents the time period well in her designs. While all the costumes are excellent, what stands out are Richard’s ornate kingly robes and Bolingbroke’s strong orange uniform. Both pieces compliment their characters well – showing the fanciful old world versus the fiery new political order.
Director Kevin J. Costa has shaped a wonderful world in CSC’s Richard II. The casting is good – and we’ll elaborate on that in a moment – but most importantly the evening is tight. Staging is fluid, and the pacing is right on point. Moments that require patience and reflection are well-deserved, but otherwise this evening moves along at a fine speed. Also, the cast’s handle of the language is top-notch. I can honestly say that this is the most natural-sounding Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen. That is not meant to detract from the stylization or the cast’s wonderful interpretation of the words; rather, their mastery in having it flow off the tongue so gracefully makes it highly understandable, engaging, and affecting.
There are many standouts in this cast of sixteen. Joseph Coracle and Daniel Flint each perform a few roles in this ensemble, but they create memorable experiences with each one – particularly as the Gardener and Mowbray, respectively. Michael P. Sullivan is a fine York; his strength serves him well in representing one of the most honorable characters in this production. As the Earl of Northumberland, Dave Gamble brings some unexpected comedy to this evening. He doesn’t play for inappropriate laughs, but his joie de vivre is a welcome addition to this heavy-handed evening.
Jonas David Grey gives a tour de force performance as Richard. He is effectively haughty and slimy, but he is also vulnerable. His vibrant interpretation of the role drives every scene that he is in, but also creates a fine depiction that hangs over every scene in which he does not appear. It’s been said that Richard II was likely mentally unfit, and that might be crutch that some performers can abuse – but Grey is dynamite. He does evoke some moments of instability, but his manic energy successfully brings much life to the evening rather than overtaking it. His final scene in the prison cell is a very moving moment in this production.
As Richard’s foil, Patrick Kilpatrick is a fine Bolingbroke. He is strong and effortless with the language, and brings to life a much more heroic monarch than the titular king. Grey and Kilpatrick have so much tension between them that makes it an exciting match.
Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s Richard II is an exhilarating night of Shakespeare. CSC points out in their program that this play may not have been performed in Baltimore in 200 years, so do not miss out on this chance to see it. It will not be around for long.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Richard II plays through November 9, 2014, at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company – 7 South Calvert Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 244-8570, or purchase them online.