Thursday, July 23, 2015

RICHARD II Rules at the Illinois Shakespeare Festival

Shakespeare's Richard II is a role much beloved by actors. Not a soldier king (even if that's what he looks like in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival banner above), not a wise father figure, not a clear-cut despot, Richard is a more complex regent, one who is born to rule but can't manage to hang on to his crown. He is sometimes played as arrogant and self-indulgent, careless or capricious, even as a sort of sexually ambiguous, fame-swept Michael Jackson figure, complete with pet monkey, as director Rupert Goold thought about him for the BBC's Hollow Crown miniseries.

Portrait of Richard II
in Westminster Abbey
Who Richard is also depends, of course, on who's playing the role. Over the years, a Who's Who of British actors, from John Gielgud to Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian McKellen, Jeremy Irons, Ralph Fiennes and Mark Rylance, have given Richard different moods and tempers. More recently, Eddie Redmayne and David Tennant have played Richard II on stage, while Ben Whishaw took the role for television. Whishaw was the one with the monkey, although in performance, his Richard seemed to be staged to evoke images of Christ more than Michael Jackson.

Kevin Rich, artistic director of the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, takes on Richard on the Ewing stage, offering not the spoiled child or the clueless weakling, but instead a man so steeped in his own divine right that he simply doesn't see the discord brewing around him or understand his own role in creating it. As we all confront privilege and what that means in today's America, Rich's Richard II is the epitome of privilege.

Under the direction of Robert Quinlan, Rich does a fine job with the famous "hollow crown" speech, when reality forces Richard to see the grim path ahead. Heretofore proud and a little chilly, Richard becomes more sympathetic as he sits on the ground -- a square patch of dirt in a raised planter, used to good effect in several scenes -- and sheds a tear over the death of kings. They may claim divine rights, but they're still mortal when push comes to shove or usurpers like Bolingbroke blow them up with their own petards.

Henson Keys is just as good with the play's other well-known piece, the lovely "scepter'd isle" speech wherein John of Gaunt extols the virtue of the "demi-paradise" that is England even as he laments the way in which King Richard is renting it out like some lowly "pelting farm." Keys is back in two other roles that he also dispatches nicely, giving just as much care to his portrayals of the gardener and the groom as he does mighty John of Gaunt.

Others who contribute to this Richard II include Robert Gerard Anderson as the mercurial Duke of York; Quetta Carpenter as his desperate wife; Colin Lawrence as their rebellious son; Thom Miller in three very different roles, including one with a Welsh accent; Lori Adams as a fearsome Duchess of Gloucester whose very face demands vengeance, and Steve Wojtas as bold Bolingbroke.

Lauren T. Roark's costume design is grand and regal enough to showcase the fashion excess at this court, while John C. Stark's set looks a bit like the real Westminster Hall, with its soft stone stairs and walls, while still providing an all-important square of British earth and a proper platform for all of Richard II's different levels.

It's a handsome production with all the right pieces in the right places. As you watch, think about divine right, privilege and the fleeting nature of both.

...Within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour'd thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

By William Shakespeare

Illinois Shakespeare Festival
at Ewing Cultural Center

Director: Robert Quinlan
Voice and Text Coach: Sara Becker
Assistant Voice and Text Coach: Bethany Hart
Scenic Designer: John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Lauren T. Roark
Lighting Designer: Marly Wooster
Sound Designer: Keiran Pereira
Fight Director: Paul Dennhardt
Fight Captain: Ron Roman
Stage Manager: Gianna Consalvo

Cast: Kevin Rich, Steve Wojtas, Henson Keys, Robert Gerard Anderson, Thom Miller, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Quetta Carpenter, Sara J. Griffin, Leslie Lank, Natalie Blackman, Faitj Servant, Robert Michael Johnson, Joey Banks, Colin Trevino-Odell, Colin Lawrence, Ronald Roman, Lori Adams, Graham Gusloff, Dario Carrion, Nathaniel Aikens, Kaitlyn Wehr, Dalton Spalding and John C. Stark.

Remaining performances: July 25 and 30; August 6.

Running time: 2:20, including one 15-minute intermission. For ticket information, click here.

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