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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the August 25, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: ‘Richard II’

It’s a wonder how presciently Shakespeare’s historical plays resonate today, and how appreciative we are when they are perceptively marshaled by imaginative theater artists to reflect our own very specific political world. "Richard II," however, needs no such manipulation or distortion to make its message clear. It gets none from director Paul Mullins in his admirable staging for the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. "Richard II" may not be on anyone’s list in the canon, but it nevertheless stands revered by scholars, at least, as the important first part of the four part series that includes the two Henry IV plays.

Mullins, who has been milling (both acting and directing) creatively about the Shakespeare Theater for the past 14 seasons, also astonished us last season with another vital and well conceived rarity, "King John." Another fine achievement is that the title role is performed with considerable flair and poetic verve by David Conrad, an actor making his debut with the Shakespeare Theater. The play (sometimes called "The Tragedy of Richard II") follows the downfall and death of an impractical immature king bent on reckless spending, prone to questionable alliances, listening to unwise advisors and getting support for an unnecessary war on Ireland (sound familiar?). However, it is more notably concerned with the nature of Richard’s character than with his puny attempt to hold the throne or his power struggle with Bolingbroke, a young lord whom he illegally disinherits from his rightful property and banishes for six years. Interestingly, Richard had quite legally inherited the throne at the tender age of 10, when his father Edward, the Black Prince, died.

It is especially nice for the listener when Shakespeare’s words are well spoken. As Richard has not been dramatically envisioned as a man of formidable action, but of fancy words, it is gratifying how Conrad embraces Richard’s grand notions about the divine right of kings with a spirited lyrical panache. Conrad’s performance, accented with flourishes of sweep and swagger, deepens as we see an increasingly tentative Richard facing his overthrow with a more saddened eloquence ("the hollow crown" speech) than has previously and consistently sustained him. More deliberately, his Richard is never foppish. Despite Richard being a rightful king, he is a very bad one, violating just about all the rules of legal and social justice. Like a petulant child, he is fine when he gets his own way, but when Bolingbroke threatens him, we watch him go to pieces.

As Bolingbroke, the tall and rugged-looking Patrick Boll (he’ll remind some of Western star Randolph Scott) is excellent as the shrewd opportunist of few words, who, without any overtly conspiratorial action, paves his own path to the throne. Except for Richard’s murder, it is a history play without sex or violence. A vigorous duel that doesn’t end in bloodshed between Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray opens the play. The play’s most compelling aspect is the conflict between Richard, an active dreamer, and Bolingbroke, a passive schemer. They are neither good nor evil, but rather, by their nature, two diametrically opposed men.

The beauty of the play, and indeed, of this fine production, rests with Richard’s growing self-awareness and ability to accept the blame for his fate. At the same time, we can see Richard’s unquestionable flaw to wallow in self-pity rather than wrestle with where he went wrong. One of the play’s most moving moments finds Geddeth Smith, as the oratory prone despairing John of Gaunt, mocking his name and shaming the king. David Manis, who appeared in the acclaimed "Henry IV" at Lincoln Center, now making an auspicious Shakespeare Theater debut, has a naturalistic style that suits the conflicted Edmund of Langley, Duke of York, Richard’s uncle and regent.

Cynthia Mace makes a strong impression as the Duchess of York, particularly as she humorously crawls and grovels up and down the stairs pleading with Bolingbroke. Also excellent in the cast of 22 are Craig Wallace as a stern and immovable Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Chris Landis, as their baby-faced, two-faced son.

My few reservations have to do with the physical production, a set (designed by Tobin Ost) that uses high rising bleacher steps that seem more treacherous than anything in the play. At the top of the steps, a golden-framed, full body portrait of Richard upon his throne is suspended. The lighting by Shelly Sabel does a particularly good job of bathing the actors with intensified spots. Except for Richard’s shades-of-"Star Wars" wardrobe, designer Hugh Hanson’s costumes are efficiently non-specific to any millennium.

– Simon Saltzman

"Richard II", The Shakespeare Theater of NJ, Drew University, Madison. Wednesday to Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. $34 to $48. Call 973-408-5600. Through August 29.

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