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A CurtainUp Review
Richard II

God save the king! Will no man say amen?
Am I both priest and clerk? Well then, amen.
God save the king! Although I be not he;
And yet, amen, if heaven do think him me.

— Richard, having a bit of trouble letting go.

Jeffrey Carlson as Richard II
Jeffrey Carlson as Richard II (Photo: Joan Marcus)
It's not everyday that you get to see a British King flounce about fingering his crown and scepter.

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.

Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Evan Yionoulis
Original Music Composed by Mike Yionoulis
Cast: George Bartenieff (Duke of York), Brian Burns (Mowbray's Herald; Harry Percy), Jeffrey Carlson (King Richard II), Caroline Stefanie Clay (Duchess of Gloucester), Caitlin Clouthier (Queen Isabelle), Alvin Epstein (John of Gaunt; Gardener), Jonathan Fried (Henry Percy), Kristjiana Gong (Lady-in-Waiting), Christopher Grant (Thomas Mowbray; Sir Piers of Exton), Billy Eugene Jones (Henry Bollingbroke), Alex Knox (Sir William Bagot; Exton's Man), Brent Langdon (Earl of Salisbury), Michael Leibenluft (York's Servant; Gardener's Man), Christopher McFarland (Sir John Bushy; Prison Keeper), Christopher McHale (Bishop of Carlisle), Dan Moran (Lord Berkeley; Sir Stephen Scroop; Abbot of Westminster), Edward O'Blenis (Lord Willoughby), Josh Odsess-Rubin (Bollingbroke's Herald; Gardener's Man), Joseph Parks (Sir Henry Green; Stable Groom), Allen E. Read (Duke of Aumerle), and Joe Tapper (Lord Ross)
Set Design: Brenda Davis
Costume Design: Melissa E. Trn
Lighting Design: Ji-Youn Chang
Sound Design: Sarah Pickett

Running Time: 3 hours includes one 15 minute intermission
Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street (at York Street) New Haven, CT. 203.432.1234
From 9/21/07 to 10/13/07; opening 9/27/07
Tickets: Weekdays: $48.00; Seniors $38.00; Students $20
Weekends: $58.00; Senior $48.00; Student $25
Contact box office for information on Rush Tickets
Reviewed by Summer Banks based on 9/28/07 performance

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