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Chesapeake Shakespeare Company offers rare Baltimore staging of 'Richard II'

From left, Michael P. Sullivan (Duke of York), Frank B. Moorman (John of Gaunt), Jonas David Grey (the king) and others in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Richard II."
From left, Michael P. Sullivan (Duke of York), Frank B. Moorman (John of Gaunt), Jonas David Grey (the king) and others in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's "Richard II." (Teresa Castracane, handout)

Neither monster nor buffoon, Richard II could have become a revered monarch of 14th-century England. He had taste, which led to significant arts patronage, and good manners — some say he invented the pocket handkerchief and was the first English king to use a spoon.

Too bad his ego was a royal pain. There's the rub.

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Shakespeare seized upon that weakness to fuel the tragedy in "Richard II," which, fairly accurately, outlines the ruler's rapid downfall during the final two years of his reign.

It appears that Baltimore audiences have not had an opportunity to experience a professional staging of "Richard II" since 1832. So reports Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, which now offers a welcome, fast-paced revival a few short blocks away from a long-gone theater where Junius Brutus Booth, father of Lincoln's assassin, performed the title role 182 years ago.

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The mostly in-verse play may not be quite as compellingly constructed, or peppered with as many well-known lines, as some other Shakespeare works, but this historical drama exerts considerable power. This is especially so in the closing passages, when the "plume-plucked Richard," deposed by enemies of his own foolish making, goes through something akin to a mad scene.

That scene brings out the best in Jonas David Grey, whose portrayal of the doomed Richard is one of the Chesapeake production's key strengths.

The actor has a knack for burrowing into such roles. He recently gave a riveting performance as another flawed king in his own adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's tragedy "Edward II," a hit at Spotlighters Theatre back in June.

Grey makes it easy to see the spoiled child in Richard, who ascended to the throne at the absurd age of 10 and never fully grasped why and how the crown could slip from his grasp.

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The king's problem, as one of his recent biographers, Nigel Saul, writes, is that "he mistook the illusion of the stage for the reality of the world around him." Shakespeare seems to have understood that, too, and gives us a Richard who believes wholly in the divine right of kings, delights in receiving deference and in manipulating lives.

Among the "sad stories of the death of kings" is the one that says Richard was brutally murdered in prison at the age of 33 in 1400 (other theories, including self-starvation, have scholarly advocates today).

Shakespeare embraced the regicide version, but lets Richard go out fighting. The king's last stand makes for vivid theater, and Grey seizes the opportunity, bringing out the melancholy and fierce pride in equal measure.

As Bolingbroke, the cousin of Richard who feels compelled and justified to reach for the throne, Patrick Kilpatrick does polished, dynamic work, especially in the first half of the play.

Frank B. Moorman is a standout as Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, and delivers the famous "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England" speech quite eloquently. The actor deftly tackles a couple other roles as well.

Other than a tendency to insert pauses or sudden fortissimos amid sentences, Michael P. Sullivan's conflicted Duke of York is a persuasive presence. Karina Hilleard provides a telling spark as the anxious Duchess of York. (Hilleard's native English accent is a bonus. I wish the other actors had tried to match it; Shakespeare's English history plays lose a lot when delivered in a flat American sound.)

For the most part, the rest of the ensemble offers sturdy support. The production, which marks Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's second offering in its new home, is directed by Kevin J. Costa with a keen sense of momentum.

Heather C. Jackson's costumes provide abundant atmosphere in an otherwise minimal staging. Not that props are needed, given the built-in Shakespearean ambience of this inviting addition to Baltimore's performance spaces.

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