Intriguing 'Richard' shatters stereotypes

September 21, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Richard Thomas is a vain, preening king in the title role of the Shakespeare Theatre's "Richard II." He plays the role as if the character himself adored playing king.

And after all, why not? Being king is all Richard II has known since he was a little boy, and his childishly capricious ways have carried over into adulthood.

It's a completely logical approach. But what sets Thomas' portrayal -- and director Michael Kahn's production -- apart is that this king is not the frequently depicted inactive, apathetic Richard II. And in keeping with that, as his adversary Bolingbroke, Edward Gero isn't so much a man of action as he is a man of quiet, steady determination -- an interesting departure from Gero's tough, militaristic interpretation of the same role here in 1988.

Consider Kahn's staging of the famous scene in which Richard hands over his crown to Bolingbroke, and then examines his face in a mirror. Instead of hurling the mirror to the ground in dismay, Thomas' Richard smashes it against his own face, gashing his forehead. He then kneels before the new king, pressing Bolingbroke's hand to his bloody forehead.

What is Gero's Bolingbroke doing during this display? He's sitting stock still on the throne, watching Richard's antics in silent amazement, with an expression that suggests he can't wait to be rid of this madman and his temper tantrums.

In a history play that is above all a character study, this subtle reversal of stereotypes is one of the production's most intriguing aspects.

It is enhanced by designer Derek McLane's stark set, which consists of metal scaffolding, suggesting that the kingdom is constantly undergoing construction. The background is dominated by a gigantic reproduction of a portrait of Richard II, whose resemblance to an icon reinforces the theory of the divine right of kings. As this is challenged and eventually overturned by Bolingbroke, gaping rectangular holes open up in the portrait, until, in the final scene, the painting is reduced to a rolled, bloody bundle.

In addition to the two leads, there are other noteworthy performances, particularly that of James J. Lawless, who personifies the play's central theme by portraying the Duke of York as a just man torn between his belief in Richard's God-given authority and the need for fair government. Ted van Griethuysen also excels in the roles of two of the play's chief truth-tellers -- lofty John of Gaunt and a lowly gardener.

One of the few disappointments is the broad comedy of Francelle Stewart Dorn's Duchess of York, whose pleas to save the life of her traitorous son introduce an excessively sitcom-y flavor to the grim proceedings.

But overall, Kahn's production is imbued with insight and historical perspective.

By the time Richard replaces self-love with self-knowledge, it is too late to do him any good. But in this production, the real tragedy isn't the personal one of a child king who took too long to grow up.

The real tragedy is the turmoil that begins with the reign of Bolingbroke, who, unlike Richard, is a consummate politician. The parting image at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington is not of a proud, newly crowned monarch joining a funeral procession, but of a troubled ruler, alone on his throne, contemplating the corpse of his predecessor.


What:"Richard II"

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington.

When: 8 p..m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and at noon Sept. 29, Oct. 7 and 14; through Oct. 31.

Tickets: $18-$45.

% Call: (202) 393-2700.

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