Brave Spirits Theatre (BST), led by Artistic Director Charlene V. Smith, has taken on a spectacular challenge: Shakespeare’s eight history plays. Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth Parts I and II, Henry the Fifth, Henry the Sixth Parts I–III, and Richard the Third represent centuries of war, civil unrest, scandal, and intellectual combat.
BST will be the first American professional company to mount full productions of the two tetralogies and perform them in repertory. You can read Smith’s interview with my colleague David Siegel here.
Their first venture, Richard the Second, is a resounding success. A talented and energetic cast, led by the superb Gary DuBreuil as Richard, bring their very best to this complex but profoundly human play. The painful choices people make between proximity to power and the love of family are at the heart of the conflict. The central action is a tectonic shift from a leader who believes in the divine right of kings to another who insists that ability, luck, and timing can alter that assumption.
Richard II is essentially a failed authoritarian. He has been bleeding the country dry for years, and has lost the loyalty of the populace and much of the aristocracy. His interests are largely frivolous. He has little sense of family, apart from the glories of his royal lineage. On the other hand, he faces an epic personal failure bravely. And his monologues are among the greatest in Shakespeare.
When we first see him, he is presiding over a potential duel between two inconvenient men: Ian Blackwell Rogers as Thomas Mowbray and John Stange as Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke is accusing Mowbray of killing Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Mowbray, for his part, denounces Bolingbroke as a traitor. From Richard’s perspective, Bolingbroke is a possible threat, since the common people love him. Rogers’ Mowbray is in a difficult position too, since he likely killed the Duke of Gloucester under Richard’s orders.
DuBreuil portrays Richard’s autocratic and devil-may-care attitude with flair. He excels in Richard’s monologues. As he becomes more and more lost and alone, our sympathy for him grows. He goes from being a Sun King to a King of Snow, melting in the rays of Bolingbroke’s splendor.
John of Gaunt (Tom Howley) Richard’s uncle and adviser, is one of the few who initially stand up to the king. In addition, Gaunt epitomizes the heart of English idealism. Here is an excerpt from his most famous speech:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Howley’s delivery of this speech is deeply moving. Thanks to Gaunt, we get a glimpse of Richard’s insensitivity early on. Attempting to be impartial, Gaunt harshly advocates the possible banishment of his son, Bolingbroke. He hopes that Richard will see through him, but Richard dismisses him abruptly instead. Zach Brewster-Geisz, as the Duke of York, who has family ties to Richard and Bolingbroke, struggles throughout to reconcile his belief in the rights of an “anointed king” with his disgust at Richard’s behavior. The Duke of Aumerle, performed with delightful humor by Duane Richards, almost loses his life while attempting to navigate the instability of the situation.
Director Charlene V. Smith has noted that the new series will feature a feminist emphasis and an analysis of the roles gender and race play in American society.
As Queen Isabel, Caroline Johnson demonstrates a tender attachment to Richard, and her sorrow at their parting is touching and real. Molly E. Thomas is excellent as the bereaved Duchess of Gloucester.
Women replace men in several key roles. Molly E. Thomas plays Scroop; Caroline Johnson is the Groom; Lisa Hill-Corley and Annette Mooney are Gardeners; and Jacqueline Chenault is Richard’s follower Bagot. In some cases, the character itself is turned into a female, as when Hill-Corley is Lady Ross. These casting choices are all successful, and they enhance the importance of women even in the canon of a patriarchal white male. Any kind of nontraditional casting promotes the inclusive atmosphere which gives us a whole new perspective on a classic.
There is a refreshing sense of comedy to this Richard. In Act IV, there is another prospective duel. Almost everyone in the scene throws down a glove as a challenge. The Duke of Aumerle (Duane Richards) furiously denies any expressed wish to murder Bolingbroke (glove). Lord Fitzwater (Michael Bannigan Jr.) accuses Aumerle of lying (glove). Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (Dean Carlson), echoes Fitzwater’s accusations (glove). As the gloves are flying, the insults keep coming, and the audience is laughing harder and harder.
The Duke of York (Zach Brewster-Geicz), the Duchess of York (Lisa Hill-Corley), and Richards’ Aumerle have a hilarious scene in which they argue about King Richard’s pardon.
Richard’s followers Bushy (Michael Bannigan Jr.), Bagot (Jacqueline Chenault), and Green (Joshua Williams) execute their various intrigues with relish.
Smith’s direction is full of visual excitement and energy. Associate Director Jordan Friend, who is also Composer and Music Director, brings us music which is exceptionally lovely and appropriate. The costumes, by Kristen P. Ahern, are a winning combination of modern and more period attire. The lighting, by Jason Aufdem-Brinke, effectively focuses our attention on the various locations, and uses spotlights at key moments. The set design, by Megan Holden, features a throne and columns, in earth tones. It is attractive but not so overwhelming as to get in the way of the performances.
Fight director Casey Kaleba, Movement Director Amanda Forstrom, and Intimacy Coordinator Megan Behm deserve special mention for their contributions.
Congratulations to all for a strong start to what is sure to be an exhilarating series.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.