Theater Review: PSF’s crowns a new ‘King’
The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival (PSF) “King Richard II” is fierce.
And yet the king at the center of William Shakespeare’s history play, in its PSF debut though through Aug. 5, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, is a soft target.
As the knives are pulled, the swords are drawn and the heads are rolled (and trundled out in bloody sacks), King Richard II (Christian Coulson) is emotionally-cauterized. You want to warn him, run to his side, give him a hug.
Coulson brings Richard’s vulnerability at the core to the fore so that, despite the king’s flaws, mistakes and insensitivity as a leader, makes him a sympathetic character.
King Richard loses his grip as he loses his power. He licks his wounds with words. Coulson portrays a ruler who withdraws, turns inward, becomes ruminative in his ruination, and comes up with some darn good speeches, among them: “I wasted time and now doth time waste me.”
Witnessing King Richard’s descent from the throne is painful. He sees all, senses all, bears all with a dignified, muted, gentle presence. He’s the king of pain.
The deposing of Richard II sets in motion events leading to the War of The Roses. “King Richard II” is the first in Shakespeare’s series of history plays. It’s the 30th of Shakespeare’s 38 plays that PSF has produced. PSF plans to produce the next two history plays, “Henry IV, Parts I” and “Henry IV, Part II.”
Dismanting the reign of King Richard II, akin to a modern-day corporate takeover, is engineered by a coterie of corporate raiders, i.e., henchmen, and a henchwoman or two, that could fill a castle courtyard.
Chief among them is Henry Bolingbroke (Justin Adams), Duke of Hereford and Richard’s cousin, who succeeds him as King Henry IV. If Richard II is all dithering and ineffectual, Bolingbroke is all business and machinelike.
Adams plays the role with a forceful enthusiasm. His presence is electrifying.
Gathered round, rubbing their egos together like so many hands anticipating a kill, are the Earl of Northumberland (Christopher Patrick Mullen), Duke of York (Wayne S. Turney), Duke of Aumerle (Brandon J. Pierce), Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk (Luigi Sottile), Lord Willoughby (Brandon Edward Burton) and John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (Christopher Coucill).
Looking on in various stages of horror or complicity are The Queen (Mairin Lee), the Duchess of York (Starla Benford) and the Duchess of Gloucester (Jo Twiss).
The PSF “King Richard II” is startling. Scenic Designer Daniel Conway creates an impressive formality (a gold sunburst crest, later collapsed, looms above the king’s throne) in tall wooden tower structures and walkways to serve multiple scenes that, combined with Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen’s meticulous work, creates castle interiors and exteriors with swift mobility and the unseen flick of a lighting cue. Sound Designer William Neal uses non-melodic percussive tones and a pastiche of repeated words in television news reports to add to the element of unease and intrigue.
The array of raiments for King Richard, often cloaked in the innocence of white, as well as beautiful gowns for the Queen, and the dark attire of Bolingbroke by Costume Designer Olivera Gajic add additional depth of character to the roles.
Fight Director J. Alex Cordaro stages some brief, but chilling, swordplay.
Director Gina Lamparella brings considerable understanding of the machinations of men as they move the pieces (their rivals, supporters, themselves) on the chessboard of politics as usual, the craft of statehood, and the battle for power. Her direction of “King Richard II” emphasizes loss, grief, and an understanding that anger, often misplaced, misdirected or more often, the direct result of a lust for power, leads to tragic consequences, intended or unintended. Lamparella’s direction is at once avant-garde and traditional. The succession of sceptre and crown is never easy.
Moreover, Lamparella directs the cast to imbue the language, which is entirely in verse, with an easy, elevated elegance that, along with the production values, makes “King Richard II” absolutely enthralling, and perhaps the finest Shakespeare play ever presented at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Indeed, PSF crowns a new “King.”
“King Richard II” can be seen as giving rise to modern politics. The tenets of “The Prince” (1513) by Machiavelli (1469-1527), which were known, may have been put into practice in the body politic by the real-life subjects of “King Richard II” (published circa 1597). God forbid. Apparently not. There is, after all, free will. In civilization, public and private, there is no balance without checks.
A footnote: What’s most remarkable about the PSF production is that “King Richard II” is in repertoire with “Shakespeare in Love,” with the same cast on the same stage, through Aug. 5. Each is a must-see. Perhaps even more than once. A twice-see.
Tickets: Labuda Center for the Performing Arts lobby box office, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley; pashakespeare.org/psf_tickets.php; 610-282-WILL (9455)