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Richard II — Quintessence Theatre Group

untitled (117)“Richard II” is a model for a history play. Although not as powerful or as varied as its natural sequel, “Henry IV,” “Richard” provides a platform through which Shakespeare supplies a primer to the origin of the War of the Roses, an internecine conflict that will divide allegiances in Great Britain for generations and set the throne of England alternating between monarchs from the Houses of Lancaster and York until unity is restored with the coronation of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, the one ruler Shakespeare does not directly immortalize on stage.

Of course, Shakespeare goes far beyond offering a history lesson in his piercing portrait of personalities and politics. He deftly pits the poetic, sardonic, but destructively vacillating Richard, a reigning king who can affirm his ascension to the throne by both birthright, recognized by all, and divine right, about which Richard constantly reminds his audience, against the straightforward, stalwart, and decisive Henry Bolingbroke, Richard’s first cousin who takes a more serious and direct approach to achieving his purposes and protecting his person and land than Richard does. It is not lost on Henry that he is of equal relationship, grandson, to the monarch that preceded Richard, Edward III, and that Richard derives his divine right to England’s throne by the fate of being the oldest living son of Henry III’s eldest son. Had Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, been the elder, he would be in line for succession, and Richard would be the cousin on the sidelines.

The contrast between the two cousins is evident in ‘Richard II’s” earliest scenes. Shakespeare makes the individual traits of Richard and Bolingbroke clear enough. Alexander Burns, directing “Richard II” for Quintessence Theatre Group, defines the characters even further.

James-Patrick Davis, asked as Richard to rule on mutual accusations of treachery by Bolingbroke and a nobleman, Mowbray, is more than wishy-washy in carrying out his royal charge to hear evidence and make a judgment that reflects his state’s defense and self-interest.

He is practically flippant while addressing both Bolingbroke and Mowbray. He almost seems bored with the case, even though it affects the safety of his person and the stability of his kingdom.

While Lee Cortopassi’s Bolingbroke is resolute, and Alan Brincks’s Mowbray mounts a persuasive argument for Richard to be wary about his cousin’s potentially usurping designs, Davis’s Richard seems distant, acting as if the royal responsibility for having to listen to Bolingbroke and Mowbray, was an irritating distraction to his divinely anointed ears.

Davis’s posture and diction is not as crisp as Cortopassi’s or Brincks’s. They seem strong and determined. He seems effete, hesitant to take necessary action and unsure of how to render a decision of any kind.

Davis is lax to the point of being slouchy and fey to the point of being swishy, sort of a bad 14th century take on a stereotypical mid-20th century portrayal of a male homosexual. Burns reinforces this impression by directing the actors playing Richard’s attendants — Bushy, Bagot, and Green — especially Alexander Harvey’s Bushy, to be equally lolling and casual, as if they were hookers in a brothel waiting for the next trick to arrive. The image is one of a complacent, ever-consenting council that enjoys Richard’s ready wit while not noticing how his inability to exercise, let alone exude, authority compromises the likelihood Richard will be taken seriously as a king. That is, besides by invoking the divine right Bolingbroke and Mowbray vouch is Richard’s and reminding the pair about his high office, which the adversaries claim to respect and revere.

Shakespeare shows us Richard has no talent to govern and little of the common touch that might at least make him more popular with the lords that defend British territory as well as with the everyday folk who farm their land and take libations at London’s many inns. Davis surpasses Shakespeare’s distinction by seeming a self-indulgently nasty snob that prefers to entertain his retinue with his verbal cleverness and who makes Richard’s shilly-shallying baldly obvious as a fatal flaw that will lead to soberer, more self-searching sequences as “Richard II” proceeds.

Interestingly, before Burn’s production ends, Davis will move his performance from one that is self-consciously coy and intentionally broad and caricature-like to an electrifying sensitive turn as Richard realizes what his lax manner of ruling has wrought and faces genuine threats to his throne, his person, and the smooth succession of the British crown.

By the time the lights fade on Richard’s story, Davis will be cheered for his remarkable work and his brilliant handling of Richard’s more ironic and sympathetically realistic accounts of his situation and fate.

Cortopassi remains consistent throughout as the personally motivated and determined Bolingbroke, who can bear his cousin’s royal decree on some matters but takes offense when Richard, in a bungling tactic that illustrates the king’s paucity of political prowess, claims as forfeit all of Bolingbroke’s land and financial holdings. Henry can tolerate, and even understand, Richard’s banishing him from English soil for six years based on Mowbray’s suit, but he cannot accept the wanton taking of his property, an insult to the relationship he and Richard share, and a slap in the face to his living father, John of Gaunt, who pleads with the king to forgo an act that smacks more of greed, vindictiveness, and desperation than on sound political management.

Richard has made an enemy where he may never have had a friend but could count on Bolingbroke as a relatively loyal and obedient subject and cousin. He has set something afoot that cannot be reversed, and he places the idea of monarchy, and the divine right he cherishes and  boasts of so much, in dire jeopardy. This question of legitimate sovereignty, along with scenes that argue and illustrate what it means to govern, is the crux of “Richard II,” and Burns finds ways to bring this discussion and its conclusion  to a head in this intense, intelligent Quintessence production.

Most importantly, Burns neatly weaves the three major threads of Shakespeare’s play. He doesn’t stint on the passages that present history. In fact, he revels in the facts and details that make them history. He takes risks on Davis’s early performance that pay off when Davis plays the increasingly contemplative, ironic, stoic Richard in late scenes. He suggests the inevitability of Bolingbroke  becoming a magnet whose steely reserve and knack for solidifying his political allies creates an irresistible force that is fueled even by regard from the British masses.

Though Burns and Davis indelibly establish Richard’s lazy weakness at the beginning, they show him as a fiend in the battlefield in a shrewdly added sequence that depicts the king defending his land against insurrectionists from Ireland.

Insurrection during the reign of the vulnerable Richard is rife. It’s what Bolingbroke is accused of by Mowbray and that gets him banished for 10 years, reduced to six following the pleadings of Henry’s sire, John of Gaunt. It’s what Bolingbroke actively perpetrates once he, the decisive cousin, judges Richard has gone a step too far in punishing him.

The nature and consequence of conflict is displayed engrossingly in Burns’s staging. Characters that often fade into “Richard II’s” background or that seem too incidental for us to note their names take foothold and make you consider the weight of  their declarations and positions. The acting of Alan Brincks, Andrew Betz,  Sean Close, Connor Hammond, Ryan Walter, and Carlo Campbell, among others, aid in pulling off this coup de theatre.

By the time Richard and Bolingbroke have their final moments, Burns has made “Richard II” every inch the tragedy Shakespeare’s story of a man who seals his own doom has the potential to be while showing how easily and popularly Bolingbroke brings substance to the hollow crown and exemplifies a strong and able king as Henry IV.

The various nobles who populate “Richard II” foreshadow a lot, not only as regards the plot of this unfairly neglected Shakespearean masterpiece, but in English history. Burns takes care for his audience to see the York cousins seething as their Lancastrian kin, Henry Bolingbroke, sets up to usurp a monarch who represents family neutrality of sorts among potential contenders for the throne. After all, if Henry can depose Richard, divine right and all, what stops a York from plotting with a disgruntled nobleman, as “Henry IV” tells us Northumberland and his son, Hotspur, will become, to unseat Henry? The line of succession has been knocked into a brocaded hat now that Henry has used military muscle and Richard’s own isolated haughtiness against him to usurp a sitting king’s crown, one even Richard’s uncles of Lancaster and York would prefer to have seen Richard keep in the name of orderly passage of royal authority. Why shouldn’t York’s children — Aumerle, the Edwards, and Richard III to come — take the same course Henry did to attain a suddenly unanointed kingship? Especially if they are unhappy with their political place in the kingdom?

Shakespeare’s history plays from “Henry IV, Part One” to “Richard III,” will let you see how England’s nobility answered the questions above. The Bard also gives Henry a line or two about his reprobate son, Henry V to be, whose louche ways are the talk of London.

As for Burns and company, they depend on strong characterization to jolt history alive and make all the controversy and emotion Shakespeare packs into “Richard II” vibrant and immediate.

Lee Cortopassi leads the charge here with his frank and unstoppable Bolingbroke.

Cortopassi’s Henry is a man with a series of missions. His first is to defend honor against slander from Mowbray that labels him a traitor.

Henry wages a good case, but the evidence on his behalf is not conclusive, a circumstance that puts the constantly wavering Richard into a dither of insecurity and confusion. Richard, after all, doesn’t like making choices, so to act precipitously without corroborating proof that makes a situation certain is too much for him. He does not have the authoritative instinct to be king. Davis, at his most arch and effeminate, is particularly unsuited to sort out Henry’s and Mowbray’s accusations and make sense of them. So he takes the coward’s way out and believes both of them, banishing both on the grounds that one way or another a poisonous traitor will be gone from his realm.

Given that Henry is his cousin and his uncle, John of Gaunt, is old, frail, and is some need of his son, Richard softens Bolingbroke’s sentence to 10 years instead of the life of a nomad he imposes on Mowbray. Even this judgment he pronounces reluctantly because he is more worried about looking as if he is prejudicially favoring a kinsman than he is about meting out justice.

Gaunt, citing his age and infirmity, pleads for further leniency for Henry. Richard, malleable to the end, grants it.

In all of his acts, Richard fails to show politesse, a knack for knowing the right strategic thing to do. He doesn’t realize the counsel he values from John of Gaunt, and the ally against other plotters he might gain by embracing rather than casting off Bolingbroke, may disappear from his arsenal of assets rather than being intact to serve him in good stead.

Richard tragically stumbles when, in need to funds to wage wars against insurrectionists, he declares the traitor Henry’s lands the property of the crown, to be sold or disposed of however the king wishes. This is the act that turns Bolingbroke from being an obedient if resentful exile to becoming the leader of a broad coalition Richard will have to defeat to retain his throne, divinely sanctioned or not.

Through all of Henry’s trials, Lee Cortopassi show his character’s deep resolve. Henry can no longer take pity on Richard’s weakness or shrug at the king’s incompetence and uncertainty, some of which we’ve seen negated in the Irish war sequence.

Henry says all he wants is the reinstatement of his property. This becomes even more important to him when John of Gaunt dies and the kings seems ready to glom up part Henry’s part of his father’s inheritance as well.

Cortopassi convinces, in the name of Henry Bolingbroke, that he no designs on the king’s title or person. He proposes a compromises in which Richard retains the title and trappings of office while Henry, the abler Henry, sees to England’s management and overall defense. Full usurpation is not on Henry’s mind.

But he underestimates Richard who is not interested in being a half king. If he is going to surrender his burdens to Henry, he will bestow all of them. Cortopassi’s Henry becomes so intent on power, his very expression shows he will take Richard at his word and assume all. There is no suffering anyone gladly, fools especially, in Cortopassi’s clear-eyed, no-nonsense turn.

Part of Richard’s tragedy is Bolingbroke does not even have to fight a decisive battle to claim the crown and become King Henry, fourth of that name. Richard is so disheartened by being captured and taken to prison, he is not willing to fight and hands over his crown as stoically as Henry went into exile.

Burns is clever in this relinquishing scene. He has Davis show Richard’s alacrity at agreeing to hand over his crown, but when the time comes to give it to Henry, he holds one corner and a tug of war of sorts ensues. It is amusing and touching at the same time.

Everything involving Richard is touching as Shakespeare’s play wends to the conclusion history dictates. James-Patrick Davis sees to that quite handily and quite artistically. As lavishly tart and full of attitude as Davis’s Richard is in Shakespeare’s initial scenes, is how absolutely moving, pathetic, and sympathetic as the actor makes Richard in the final sequences.

Shakespeare writes the abdicating Richard II some of the most marvelous poetry to be found in his plays. He takes the king’s natural talent for words, the flippancy and irony we hear in the Bolingbroke-Mowbray scenes, and shows the majesty with which Richard is able to express himself. You become aware of Richard’s self-realization and of the cruel responsibility he considers the kingship. You have a sense of Richard’s weariness and remorse but also of his noble character and of a clarity that makes you re-evaluate his character and the possibility he may grow into as good a king as he is a psychologist, poet, and philosopher.

Henry is for the military business and everyday practicality of being king. Davis’s reading of Shakespeare’s glorious lines show Richard looked on government as romantically as he did on every other part of his life. He has a sense of what he would have liked to have done but the self-knowledge to realize he might be the last one who is likely to accomplish his intentions while Henry is programmed only to attain his objectives and goals, however mundane or lofty.

Cortopassi and Davis illustrate the two sides of statesmanship. You may weep for the fall of Richard, but that is because Davis has let you see him as a man, and in the end, a man without airs or a reason to be haughty. You know, though, that England will do better in the hands of Henry and his attention to the necessary.

Because of its two leads, Quintessence’s “Richard II” satisfies on several levels. It imparts much information that puts British politics from 1399 to 1485 to light. It shows two philosophies and practices of government and deems one as superior to the other. It puts human faces on a parade of historical events.

Cortopassi and Davis are not alone is making Burns’s “Richard II” so special. The director has assembled a corps of remarkable actors who make “Richard II” somber and thought-provoking as much as they make “As You Like It,” appearing in repertory with “Richard,” sunny and frothily amusing.

Andrew Betz is a talented actor who remains constantly in character, never ceasing to make appropriate facial responses to things he is hearing but not responding to. He also has a sure way of delivering his lines that maximizes their meaning and makes the right narrative point hit home.

Betz is wonderful as a courtier, Exton, who wants to make a mark that will get the newly crowned Henry’s attention. Betz is eloquent in portraying the character and appropriately excited to enact something for which he believes Henry will be eternally grateful.

Stephen Novelli personifies wisdom and duty to office as the noble John of Gaunt, torn between fealty to his anointed king and concerned for his accused, banished, and eventually rebellious son. Time and again, Novelli conveys the sageness of the elder statesman, one who served his grandfather and father and is eager to help Richard to be a just and authoritative monarch.

Gaunt instilled more competence in justice and authority in his son, Henry, but he serves as an advisor to Richard, even following Henry’s banishment, out of a uncle and noble’s duty.  Novelli also has a marvelous scene as a gardener in the palace where Richard is held prisoner.

Sean Close shows depth, even in duplicity, as Richard and Henry’s first cousin from their York uncle, Aumerle.

Close reveled too much in the antics of Touchstone in Quintessence’s “As You Like It.” As Aumerle, he shows the discipline and gravity as an actor his character fails to show as a cousin and politician.

Aumerle remains loyal to Richard, but when the tide turns towards his other cousin, Bolingbroke, he seems to change allegiance.

“Seems” is the operative word. Like others, Aumerle fears Henry will acquire a taste for despotism. If Henry can take a crown by force, he will be wary that others may try to take his by vicious means. Aumerle, being of equal status with Richard and Henry in terms of sharing the grandfather that justifies their right to the kingship, thinks in terms of his place in the line of succession, the York interest which has not been addressed by Richard or Henry.

Close is strong in the scenes in which he and others conspire against Bolingbroke and in favor of the deposed but living Richard. He is also excellent in the sequence in which his father, discovering Aumerle’s taste for political intrigue,  takes action to expose his son and his plot against Henry.

Paul Hebron ably plays the Duke of York who feels it his duty to accuse his son of treason and let Henry decide the rest. Hebron’s York is always sincere and resolute about doing the correct thing no matter what the immediate consequences to his son. His York puts the stability of government ahead of his son’s safety and welfare.

Matt Tallman is Hebron’s foil as the Duchess of York, a mother who would defend her son and keep him from harm’s way no matter what he’d done. Tallman brings a nice mixture of broad comedy and maternal earnestness to the Duchess’s role.

In a scene that is somewhat parallel to the opening contretemps between Bolingbroke and Mowbray, Shakespeare shows York, Aumerle, and the duchess taking opposite stances as Henry reads the letter than proves Aumerle’s perfidy. Burns allows a bit of chaos as mother tries to outshout father, and aunt tries to prevail on her nephew’s memory of how she favored him among the other cousins.

Henry makes a much shrewder, peacekeeping decision in resolving  the York mess than Richard did. He shores a base Richard left exposed. Shakespeare certainly knows how to illustrate the difference between situations and the people involved in them.

Connor Hammond, like Andrew Betz, is a gifted young actor I look forward to seeing again.

Hammond brings complete and intense sympathy to Richard’s queen, who shows her love for her husband and worries for her fate as historical events move rapidly. Hammond also registers strongly as Harry Percy, Hotspur to be, in the few scenes in which Percy appears.

Alan Brincks does well with a trio of characters, the most pivotal one being Mowbray, who lays the groundwork for Richard’s wavering. Brincks does an excellent job advocating his actions and denouncing Henry’s.

Ryan Walter delivers Shakespeare as if he spoke in iambs all the time. His excellent way with a line reading serves the Duchess of Gloucester and the courtier, Willoughby, well.

Carlo Campbell, as Northumberland, lets you hear the discontentment that will lead to the War of the Roses once Henry is installed on the throne.

“Richard II” runs in repertory with “As You Like It” through Sunday, November 16, as produced  by Quintessence Theatre Group at the Sedgwick Theatre, 7137 Germantown Avenue, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, Friday, Nov. 7, and Saturday, Nov. 15, 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8, and 3 p.m. Sundays, Nov. 9 and 16. Tickets are $34 with discounts for seniors and students and can be ordered by calling 866-811-4111 or by visiting www.quintessencetheatre.org.

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