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A CurtainUp Review
Those moments are enough to make the Yale Repertory Theatre's overlong production of Richard II a thing to marvel at. The half-classical, half-coldly modern imagining of Shakespeare's first entry in the Henriad, directed by Evan Yonoulis, is largely a subtle examination of miniscule political machinations with a few moments of brilliant insight.
Richard II opens with a prologue in which a brief history is presented to the audience with a dumb show of actors variously dying and leaving the stage, representing the path of history up until Richard's reign. When Richard enters, it is on his throne raised on a platform, poised and ready to begin.
And it's a powerhouse performance of affected speech and new inflections that explores the subtexts in Shakespeare's text long since forgotten on American stages. Much has been made of Jeffrey Carlson's 2004 performance as the first daytime television transgender character and this actually put me off at first because it smacked of sensationalist casting. But Carlson's Richard isn't some kind of gimmick designed to contemporize Shakespeare or shake up the gray-haired regional theater audience. He's a slightly flamboyant epicurean king used to flaunting the good life. His mannerisms do not appear studied and his line readings are perfectly timed, if a little forced once in a while. His character arc is consistent and engaging. While this play has less ostensible psychological turmoil that the other Richards or the Henrys, Carlson manages to find the important threads in Richard's path from ruler to prisoner and hold onto them while traversing the rest of the play's various relationship struggles.
The balance of the play would be far more engaging if the rest of the ensemble delivered performances as strong as Carlson's. Fifteen men and three women fill out the cast and they not only fail to cohere as a group but also appear to be acting in different worlds. The many awkward crowd scenes are thrown out of context by the milling actors, which are too directed and posed to serve the play well. Because the set is so bare, the cast needs to be even more actively engaged and there was nothing to suggest that these men were anything more than just actors on an empty stage. The prose also felt a bit canned — recited rather than acted— but only really noticeable in contrast to Carlson's naturalistic, almost contemporary tone.
A few notable exceptions stand out of the lackluster ensemble. Alvin Epstein, father of American regional-theater, puts in two well-lived and studied performances as the aging John of Gaunt and Gardener. Epstein was one of the founding members of not only the Yale Rep, but also the American Repertory Theatre. And as if that wasn't enough, he also served as Artistic Director of the Guthrie Theater. Epstein's stage-presence is still strong and serves as a nice complement to the brash yet, thoughtful performance delivered by Billy Eugene Jones as Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt's heir. George Bartenieff's Duke of York also makes an impression even if his portrayal is uneven at times.
The visual aspects of the play are strikingly well-coordinated. Carlson and his favorites wear Mohawks-bordering-on-faux-hawks, provoking a sense of youthful rebellion that has carried on far too long into adulthood. The costumes largely consist of cream and gold period dress, while the set is bare and industrial, dotted with life size glass coffins filled with past kings and queens raised into the rafters.
These coffins hang like dark fate over the action as it proceeds. In the end another king is lifted to the rafters and the bloody cycle of royalty continues. But it was a pleasantly foppish diversion while it lasted.
Try onlineseats.com for great seats to
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