Saturday, October 31, 2015

Margin Notes: Richard II

Morgan Hooper as Richard II (with Kitty Mortland as
Duke of Aumerle). Photo by John Hoffman.

Seen on: Wednesday, 10/28/15.
My grade: B.

Plot and Background
Richard II, a young king given to whim and jest more than serious thought, is in the final years of his reign when an arbitrary banishment to end a dispute leads to rebellion by his cousin Bolingbroke. Although Richard abdicates his throne readily - if unhappily - it soon becomes clear that it is not so simple to merely lock away the fallen king in a prison. One of Shakespeare's histories, Richard II was probably written in 1595 and serves as the first part of the Henriad tetrology (followed by Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V). Richard II is presented in rep with Romeo and Juliet by Hamlet Isn't Dead, the self-proclaimed "286th-best Shakespeare-related theatre troupe" in New York. Their mission is to present Shakespeare's work in chronological order.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I've seen Mark Rylance play Richard II at The Globe, and Ben Whishaw play the role in The Hollow Crown series for BBC, which featured it as the first in the series. I've seen some of Hamlet Isn't Dead's work in the past, and I'm friends with the director, Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: From the first line of the play, director Snyder makes her vision clear. King Richard II strolls onstage alone and begins his famous Act V monologue:
     I have been studying how I may compare
     This prison where I live unto the world:
     And for because the world is populous
     And here is not a creature but myself,
     I cannot do it; yet I'll hammer it out.
And suddenly the stage is flooded with courtiers, and the play begins proper. Thus the narrative is framed as a sort of flashback - Richard is able to repopulate his prison and examine how he got to this point. The motif continues when his wife, Queen Isabella, trapped in her courtly life to a husband she does not fully understand, begins the same speech; and then again when Bolingbroke, at sea in the growing momentum of his rebellion against Richard, finds himself with crowd and crown in hand. This is a world of prisons where each character is his own jailer. The tragedy of Richard II is how many points along the way the audience can see a bloodless solution hiding in the characters' blind spots. So many times, were the characters able to pause and examine, perhaps swallow a bit of pride, could this all have sorted differently - no banishment, no insurrection, no murder, no abdication, no secret plotting. But in their isolation, in their individual prisons, all they can do is stumble on, heedless of the bloody barriers in their way. Snyder understands this acutely and crafts her production - staged in the challenging alley formation - cleanly and with little ornament, relying on the words and the people speaking them to convey the narrative.

Cast: Morgan Hooper, in the title role, is truly a special talent, his freshness and ease with the language and verse reminiscent of Rylance. He is able to play with the text, with his castmates, in full command of every word he speaks, every gesture he makes. His Richard is not the wispy weak-willed Richard we sometimes see; rather, his is a boy refusing to grow up, demanding he be allowed his king's privilege to play with the lives of those around him as if they were his toys. It is only when he learns of the deaths of two of his acolytes that the gravity of the rebellion sinks in, and he seems truly a king for the first time - just in time to lose his crown. Robin Rightmyer's Bolingbroke, the antagonist to Richard, is earnestly heroic and easily commands focus in his scenes. For the rest of the cast, while their text work is fine, a rather arbitrary choice for those playing multiple roles has been made, wherein they're doing a lot of random accents for their various characters (This may, in fact, just be a Hamlet Isn't Dead thing, as I recall noticing a similar trend in their Henry VI; and while I can understand the impetus, it reads to me like they're not trusting the actors to differentiate characters with, you know, acting). That caveat aside, it is great fun to watch the lightning fast changes (sometimes onstage) of Alice Qin and Madeline Wolf, darting offstage here, returning at a gallop there, with a hastily thrown coat over the old costume.

Design: Although no set designer is listed, I'm gonna take advantage of the fact that this is my blog and I can do what I want, to say how much I like the simple choices made with the set design. The largest piece is Richard's coffin, present onstage from the first - sometimes serving as a platform, a bench, a chest of jewels, a grassy hillock - but always a reminder of where this is heading. The other principal set piece is Richard's throne - a spindly-legged gilt affair, a signal of how weak his hold on power is, even from the first. Shaina Kosloff's costume design placed us very firmly in the now - there's no other word for Richard's courtiers but hipsters. Some of the smaller choices feel a bit arbitrary - dressing the Duke of Aumerle as a bit of a bumpkin (sans straw hat) - but by and large they suit to distinguish characters for those actors playing multiple roles. Meron Langsner's fight choreography is surprisingly good (no disrespect intended) for a venue of this intimacy, and with the alley staging preventing the hiding of blows.


Running: Now playing at Westbeth Artist Community (Hamlet Isn't Dead) - Opening: October 31, 2015. Closing: November 22, 2015
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 5 minutes, including intermission.
Tip: The theater is a bit hard to find if you enter through the 55 Bethune Street entrance (though the security guard will direct you). You might fare better approaching from the 155 Bank Street side (one block south of Bethune) and walking up the courtyard.

Creative Team

Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Emily C. A. Snyder
Designers: Mitch Marois (Choreography), Shaina Kosloff (Costume), Nathan Luttrull (Lighting),  Meron Langsner (Fight Director), James Parenti (Original Music).
Cast: Amanda Clark, Morgan Hooper, Kineta Kuntu, Nathan Luttrull, Kitty Mortland, Robin Rightmyer, Alice Qin, Madeline Wolf.

Alice Qin, Madeline Wolf, and Amanda Clark as Bushy, Green, and Bagot.
Photo by John Hoffman.

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