Brave Spirits – oh brave indeed! – have kicked off their ambitious plan to perform the entirety of Shakespeare’s double-tetralogy of history plays covering one of the most tumultuous periods of English history. This season is devoted to Richard the Second, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V (collectively titled The King’s Shadow), with each play opening over the next several weeks to be performed in repertory through mid-April. After next season’s repertory of the three parts of Henry VI plus Richard III (collectively The Queen’s Storm), all eight plays will be performed in a mammoth repertory in June and July of 2021.
And the first chapter in this epic undertaking comes vividly to life by an able company of fourteen actors at the Lab at Convergence in Alexandria with Richard the Second, the tale of an impulsive, mercurial and vain ruler, infused with self, intimidated by battle-hardened and experienced statesmen whom he pushes aside in favor of flatterers, making rash and ill-considered decisions that plunge his country into near-perpetual war. Sigh; history is indeed cyclical.
The idea of an unstable monarch being unseated was a politically dangerous one; on the eve of the Earl of Essex’s attempted overthrow of the aging Queen Elizabeth in February 1601, his supporters commissioned the Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s acting company, for a special performance of Richard the Second intended to rouse the public to follow them. It didn’t, and on the eve of Essex’s execution, Queen Elizabeth commissioned the Chamberlain’s Men to do an encore performance… for her. She is widely, if apocryphally, quoted as saying “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”
Richard the Second closes May 26, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Viewing the eight plays as a whole, Richard the Second serves admirably as prologue for the dark days to come. The Abbot of Carlisle reproaches Bolingbroke (soon to become Henry IV) “The blood of English shall manure the ground, And future Ages groane for his foule Act.” We see the alliances line up, and those familiar with history and/or the material can foresee which ones will hold and which will not – the post-intermission scene with the throwing down of gauntlets builds in intensity to high comedy. Bolingbroke also foreshadows the next two plays, lamenting the wastrel behavior of his son (Prince Hal, later Henry V) whom we have yet to meet.
All this history and prologue would be window dressing if the production was mediocre (I’ve seen some decidedly ‘meh’ history plays lately). Happily, Brave Spirits have assembled a strong ensemble of actors largely at home with the language and brimming with physicality and chest-thumping energy. Charlene V Smith, artistic director and mastermind behind this enormous project, stages with economy, keeping the action straightforward and uncomplicated. Jordan Friend punctuates the scenes with musical motifs that I presume will carry forward in the other plays. Megan Holder’s set and Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s lighting I presume are designed to remain relatively consistent for the eight plays, they provide effective modular staging with a variety of moods.
In the title role, Gary DuBreuil captures both the impish arrogance of his kingship and the late-arriving vulnerability and self-awareness as he comes to terms with his failures, it’s a crucial role and DuBreuil pulls it off with style. As noted above, it may be tempting to make overt contemporary parallels, but he and director Smith avoid taking the dangling bait.
Tom Howley carries the conscience of the production – he nails John of Gaunt’s famed “this blessed plot…” speech and imbues the Abbot with ominous foreshadowing. Zach Brewster-Geisz plays the Duke of York with more than a hint of Polonius, a richly human and detailed performance. Ian Blackwell-Rogers, as I have noted before, seems genetically engineered for classical theatre. John Stange as Bolingbroke is an intriguing study in Machiavellian politics, he’s overthrowing a corrupt monarch but is prepared to play dirty to get – and eventually keep – the throne. Caroline Johnson as Queen Isabel ably balances courtly presence and vulnerability. The full ensemble is strong, and deserve credit for committing to this project for such a long stretch of time.
At two and a half hours, the momentum flags a bit toward the end and the script might’ve benefitted from some further pruning. But as a study of a ruler coming to terms with his humanity, and as a kickoff of Brave Spirits’ undertaking, Richard the Second starts the epic journey on solid footing.
The Tragedy of King Richard the Second by William Shakespeare, directed by Charlene V Smith. Cast: Michael Bannigan Jr, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Zack Brewster-Geisz, Dean Carlson, Jacqueline Chenault, Gary DuBreuil, Lisa Hill-Corley, Tom Howley, Caroline Johnson, Annette Mooney, Duane Richards, John Stange, Molly E Thomas, Joshua Williams. Dramaturg: Marshall Garrett. Costume Design: Kristen Ahern. Set Designer: Megan Holden. Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke. Fight Director: Casey Kaleba. Composer/Music Director: Jordan Friend. Movement Director: Amanda Forstrom. Properties: Caolan Eder. Intimacy Coordinator: Megan Behm. Hair & Makeup: Hannah Fogler. Dialect Coach: Jenna Berk. Clowning: Ryan Musil. Production Stage Manager: Jen Katz. Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre. Review by John Geoffrion