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Richard II
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Review by Josh Garstka

Also see Nancy's recent reviews of 1984 and An Octoroon

Doug Lockwood
Photo by Stratton McCrady
I saw the Actors' Shakespeare Project's production of Richard II the night of two key presidential primaries. Listening to audience members debate the primary results at intermission, I became aware of how deeply William Shakespeare's play resonates in a fractious year of political change. This is, after all, a story of the people and the government subverting the status quo. In this staging's first minute, a leader is dispatched: the Duke of Gloucester—King Richard II's uncle—murdered before our eyes. The shock of this opening scene (set against Arshan Gailus's sinister sound design) looms over the play and comes full circle when Richard himself is inevitably slain. This production draws attention to every backhanded political maneuver along the way, creating a riveting atmosphere of suspense that carries the play to its violent end.

While a traditional Richard II might reveal the King on the throne, director Allyn Burrows amusingly places him in a bathtub, washing up while Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray hurl accusations of treason at each other. Richard is an emperor with no clothes, the production implies: an empty leader even after twenty years ruling over England. Though the text never directly states that the King conspired in the Duke of Gloucester's murder, setting the King in his bath suggests he has ample reason to cleanse himself.

Beyond the Duke's murder, Richard is rapidly losing support for his feckless governance. When he halts Bolingbroke and Mowbray's duel, unwilling to witness any more bloodshed, Richard sets his inevitable downfall in motion. He banishes Bolingbroke—the future King Henry IV—from England for six years; little does he know Bolingbroke will quickly return for the crown, supported by many of Richard's former allies.

The King is a challenging character to play, growing weaker as Bolingbroke gains power. It's to Burrows's credit, as well as that of actor Doug Lockwood, that this is assuredly Richard's play. In real life, Richard and Bolingbroke were the same age, but Lockwood appears younger—and therefore more politically naïve—than his cousin Bolingbroke and his advisors. He is a boy king, prone to vanity and showiness. Richard is not an empathetic ruler, either. When Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt dies, Richard declares in the presence of the corpse that he'll take Gaunt's fortune for himself, so he can fund the latest war.

Lockwood is captivating as he portrays Richard's progression from an out-of-touch leader to a broken-down, useless man. He pauses when asked to remove his crown; he stares at the object as if he never realized he'd have to surrender his power. Later, during his imprisonment, Lockwood makes Richard's soliloquy seem like his first moment of self-awareness ("I wasted time, and now doth Time waste me"). For a ruler who assumed he had divine right, this Richard now finds himself in a godless world.

The rigorous muscle of Shakespeare's all-verse play is effective in this intimate staging at the Cambridge YMCA. Often, monologues are addressed directly to an audience member three feet away, and the actors deliver many lines from the aisles. We the audience are co-conspirators to the play's surreptitious whispers and political machinations. Several minor characters have been sacrificed; the seven-person cast ably handles the rest. Malcolm Ingram, Marya Lowry, Paula Plum, and Lewis D. Wheeler portray several roles, shifting with grace into each new character. This streamlined approach leads to a new ending for poor, imprisoned Richard: his executioner is changed from the original text to one of his most loyal men. And so the pattern of duplicity continues. Even our dearest allies can betray us at the drop of a glove.

Is Henry IV, the second King of the night, complicit in Richard's murder? The text provides no exact answer, and as portrayed by Michael Forden Walker, neither does Henry. His final monologue over Richard's body is short, and Walker plays it without much remorse. Walker's Henry Bolingbroke is somewhat enigmatic over the whole play. His speech and manner are more formal than Lockwood's as Richard, for one thing. This straightforward delivery might seem earnest to some, or overly sincere to others, masking a Machiavellian hunger to become king no matter how.

The Actors' Shakespeare Project brings these ambiguities to the forefront. With his pared-down staging and cast, Allyn Burrows sharply heightens how these royal elites are all implicated in Richard's demise. The duplicity on stage would not be out of place in our political landscape today. Over Richard's dead body, Henry IV states, "My soul is full of woe / That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow." There is no victory without treachery, the production seems to say. Everyone is vulnerable.

Richard II is presented by the Actors' Shakespeare Project through March 13, 2016, at the Cambridge YMCA, 820 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139. Tickets are $33-$50 and can be purchased at or by phone at 866-811-4111.

Malcolm Ingram: John of Gaunt, Gardener, Bishop of Carlisle
Doug Lockwood: King Richard II
Marya Lowry: Duchess of York, Earl of Northumberland
Paula Plum: Queen to King Richard, Duke of Aumerle
Michael Forden Walker: Henry Bolingbroke
Robert Walsh: Duke of York
Lewis D. Wheeler: Thomas Mowbray, Henry Percy, Welsh Captain, Servant, Groom

Director: Allyn Burrows
Set Designer: Janie E. Howland
Lighting Designer: Daniel H. Jentzen
Costume Designer: Tyler Kinney
Sound Design and Original Music: Arshan Gailus
Stage Manager: Cassie M. Seinuk
Props Master: Misaki Nishimiya
Vocal Coach: Rebecca Schneebaum
Alexander Technique Teacher: Linda Carmichael
Production Manager: Deb Sullivan