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A CurtainUp Review
By Les Gutman
I confess that I rank Richard II higher on the Shakespearean totem pole than most people do. For one thing, while it sets in motion a huge chunk of Shakespeare's examination of British history, it is more about characters and less about "figures." For another, it is almost unimaginably poetic.
There is much disagreement about Richard II: Is it a tragedy or a history? Is Richard to be admired or pitied? Shepard Sobel's Pearl Theatre production charts its own course. This Richard II assays the "breath of kings," and reveals its chemical composition. It is a fairly scientific exploration, lacking in much of the soaring emotionalism the poetry can propagate. The result is an expression of Richard's ordinariness: Richard is all business, more the victim of poor judgment than of some tragic weakness. In this equation, the usurper is rendered less forceful and charismatic than one might expect, and the political nature of the calculations of the partisans seems all the more obvious.
This is not a bad thing. I found it more intriguing, if somewhat less appealing, than most productions I've seen. The actions of a less sentimental Richard present a less cloudy picture of the events, and maybe even truer one. As reference to current political events would show, whatever grand explanation history attaches, it is really a series of not-so-grand political calculations (and miscalculations).
Although we tend to think of this as a play about young people, it is somehow the elders who demand our attention here. Perhaps there is indeed "no virtue like necessity," but this Richard (Bradford Cover), his queen (Hope Chernov) and his usurper Bolingbroke (Seth Jones) offer constrained portrayals that leave the gate wide open for the grayer-haired characters to blossom. It's hard to criticize the above-named actors for the bland performances that directorial judgments have produced, and it would be equally harsh to complain about the director's choices, since they are perfectly valid. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that this perspective results in less enjoyable versions of the principal combatants than audiences are used to seeing.
But, as suggested, what is taken from the younger generation is repaid doubly with their antecedents. This production mines the lode of their characters to great depth, and with fascinating effect. Four actors (playing a total of eight roles) are the primary beneficiaries of this shift: