A number of yards beyond the stage of the Theatre at the West-Park Church, where Richard II opened last night, a gorgeous stained glass window seems to remind us, and the characters in Shakespeare's play, that God is ever present in our lives. While that topic has been debated for hundreds of years, and will continue to be debated for centuries to come, it seems clear that this production was never fully blessed.
If any of Shakespeare's histories would benefit from a production in this environment, Richard II would be it. With its smaller, denser cast (by Shakespearean history standards), and dealing extensively with Divine Right and royal obligation, the play does feel at home in the churchlike setting. Unfortunately, the director, Lynnea Benson, isn't able to completely use the space to her, or the audience's advantage. Too often, the characters' words are lost in the cavernous gap that separates the playing area from the far wall of the sanctuary.
This is even more problematic given the very nature of the play. Richard II is hardly one of Shakespeare's more action-packed plays. Though it deals with the attempt of the wronged Henry Bolinbroke (Ted Zurkowski) to reclaim his lands, title, and the kingship he believes he is owed from the weak Richard II (Austin Pendleton), the story takes a long time to pick up speed, even under the best of circumstances. Benson and her company of nineteen performers have trouble communicating the story, especially in the earliest scenes, which are almost wall-to-wall political maneuvering. The words come fast and thick, and the actors don't generally seem to have a firm grasp on what they are saying and what it all means. As a result, the crucial groundwork for the dramatic payoffs in the second act isn't successfully laid.
Pendleton succeeds at portraying Richard's confusion and questionable leadership abilities. It was often difficult, however, to determine if the confusion was a legitimate character choice, or if he was having difficulty with his lines - he appeared to be stumbling over them, especially in the first act. He much improved in the second act, though, turning the ineffectual Richard into a fascinating and even sympathetic character as the play reached its conclusion. Zurkowski's Bolinbroke is even less effective, and he seems to remain consistently at one level throughout. His tone of voice, attitude, and even facial expressions never seem to change as his situation grows dimmer or more hopeful. With so much of the play's focus on Bolinbroke, this makes the action, at points, especially difficult to follow.
Those in some of the smaller roles fare better. Rhonda Cole brings a great degree of elegance to the Queen, and her scenes are among the most emotionally affecting in the play. Charlotte Hampden, as the Duchess of York, appears only late in the play, but gives great weight to the concerned wife and mother she plays. As both the Bishop of Carlisle and the banished Thomas Mowbray, Martin Carey stands out - his grasp of the language and the characters seems more realized than that of the many of the other actors.
It is an ambitious undertaking for any theatre company to produce a Shakespeare play and more daring still to attempt one of his histories. Richard II is among the most challenging of those, and had the Frog & Peach Theatre Company succeeded with this production on its tiny stage with its glorious background, it would have been all the more remarkable. This production, like Richard II himself, had good intentions, but made one too many missteps along the way.
Frog & Peach Theatre Company