Capsule review: Richard II – Oregon Shakespeare Festival

This is the fourth capsule review (of five) for the plays I saw last week in Ashland as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season. Full reviews will be in the podcast on Sunday.

Today: Richard II.

Richard II -- OSF 2016
Richard II — OSF 2016

Thursday evening, we caught Richard II in the smaller Thomas Theater. If Timon was must-see theater because of its sensationalistic presentation and in-your-face design and performance, then Richard II is must-see theater because of OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch’s complete mastery of subtle, elegant, textually supported stagecraft.

Rauch puts the throne at the top of the front (of a three-quarter surrounding) audience section, to amazing effect: Richard is above the action, above even us. A large hydraulic trap is used to shuttle in characters and set pieces. Quasi-modern dress, but some elements hold onto medieval times: the use of armor for the combat of Bolingbroke and Mowbry, complete with lances and the sound of horses, Richard’s regal use of crown and scepter. It paints the picture of out-of-touch nobility; and when Bolingbroke returns to England with an army, it’s in modern fatigues with sounds of jeeps and motorcycles. The new world order has arrived, and tradition be damned.

If Richard, as played beautifully by Christian Liam Moore, is a spoiled effeminate brat, then Jeffrey King plays Bolingbroke as a man who is consummately sure that he is in the right, an almost Dudley-DoRight figure in his dress uniform and square jaw. There’s really not a bad performance in the bunch.

The pivotal scene in Richard II, the one that productions build to, is the exchange of the crown from Richard to Henry. And here it’s brilliantly done. Henry, sitting on the throne, meets Richard halfway; Richard circles Henry as they hold the crown together. When Henry takes possession, he leaves Richard in the center, and returns to the throne, a path of light connects the two and extends beyond Richard, another path crosses perpendicularly where Richard stands, forming a cross, a perfect complement to the concept of the divine right of kings. And during the speech by Richard that follows, you can see all of that confidence of Henry’s draining away. He becomes a shell of the man he used to be, and becoming the weakened Henry that will be in the next two plays that carry his name. Simply brilliant.

This is absolutely the best Richard II I’ve seen. And definitely in the top five productions I’ve ever witnessed. And the more I think about it, it may be the best.

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