Scott Harmon as John of Gaunt.
Madison Shakespeare Company and Broom Street Theater have joined forces to present a fresh and timely examination of regime change and revolt in a production of Richard the Second, running through March 11 at Broom Street Theater’s home on Willy Street.
As directed by Christopher William Wolter, the production sets Shakespeare’s history play about the machinations of power in modern times and touches on the media’s role in calling out leaders who overstep their authority.
After the death of the popular Duke of Gloucester, his nephew, Henry Bolingbroke, accuses Thomas Mowbray of treason for plotting that death and mishandling funds. Bolingbroke and Mowbray throw down their gages (there is lot of glove flinging throughout) and are set to confront each other in combat. King Richard II presides over this duel but quickly interrupts the proceedings by banishing both dukes. When the ailing John of Guant (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle, who is upset with the king and not just about his son’s exile) dies, Richard pounces upon his wealth and plans to nab Bolingbroke’s inheritance. While exiled in France, Bolingbroke has been gathering his supporters, and he gets a boost from other noblemen who are displeased with the king’s ruling style and the high cost of the Irish wars. Bolingbroke returns to England, and Richard, seeing the writing on the wall, reluctantly hands over the crown to Bolingbroke. This transfer of power is not smooth, and Richard, the deposed king, is murdered in prison.
Wolter has made an interesting choice to use a video camera (which he operates) intermittently throughout the play, projecting images on the wall behind the actors and sometimes providing close-ups or angles that the audience wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. At times, the actors play directly to the camera, a sharp commentary on our current politicians/rulers.
Wolter makes some other intriguing choices as well. Some pay off, like the scene where Richard and his queen visit the dying Guant; the event is treated like a press conference/photo op. The opening of the show, which is sparely accompanied by a snare drum, has the cast miming gestures — some common (checking cell phones, examining finger nails), some uncommon (stabbing, twisting a garrote).
Some choices don’t work as well: the use of red and white flower boutonnieres to signal political allegiances; the repeated employment of a tray of dirt to represent the actual land of England; and perhaps most annoyingly, intentional offstage laughter and commotion.
The play also uses nontraditional casting — both lead roles are played by women. Tia Tanzer plays Richard II with a naturalness underscored by her confident physicality. Her performance moved me, particularly during the scene where the king talks about swapping out his kingdom for a “little grave.” Katie Norman is quite committed to her role as Bolingbroke. She has an open and expressive face, which is an asset, but at times her performance seems studied and a bit academic.
Scott Harman is especially good in the press conference scene as the dying but still feisty Guant. Niccole Carner has a good scene with Harman as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester. And Benjamin Olneck-Brown does an excellent job juggling multiple roles.
Overall, this production of Richard the Second is a commendable effort by two small local companies that tackled a big work and infused it with new ideas.