Chloe Bell in Richard II.
Photo-J. Barrett Cooper
by William Shakespeare
Directed by J. Barrett Cooper
Review by Katherine Dalton
Entire contents are copyright © 2014 Katherine Dalton. All rights reserved.
Before I left the house to review this play I was trying to remember what sort of women’s parts Richard II has—and couldn’t. It has a few, of course, but like most of the history plays, this beautifully written story of the self-doomed Plantagenet king is a man’s vehicle.
Only not in this production. Walden Theatre faces the perennial problem of having more good female actors than it has good parts in its annual Young American Shakespeare Festival, but this spring director J. Barrett Cooper has solved it (and not for the first time at Walden) by the simple expedient of casting Richard II entirely with young women. As far as I could discern, they were simply women playing men—not in drag, not to make any particular statement about sexual politics (with the exception, perhaps, of an uncomfortable stage kiss between Richard and his queen), but simply because Walden had several female leads who were ready and able to take on these substantial parts.
For the actresses, it must have been a great lark. This is a play chock-full of beautiful and famous Shakespearean language, and while Richard gets a lot of it, he is not alone in having line after wonderful line.
The historical Richard was a cultured man as well as a soldier—he was a patron of Chaucer, among other things. It is fitting, then, that he gets so much good poetry. But he was also a power- and money-hungry king, and his jealousy of his powerful cousin Bolingbroke, whose banishment opens the play, led eventually to Richard’s deposition and finally death. The theatrical Richard is hard to admire, since he is the most spoiled and self-pitying of Shakespeare’s monarchs:
No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings…
Considering the time of Richard’s life covered by this play, the stage is remarkably devoid of action. There is some gauntlet throwing, one stayed hand-to-hand combat and finally one murder—so much nothing for the author of Titus Andronicus. But in recompense the audience gets an ocean of language and such wonderful characters as Gaunt, played here by Ruthie Dworin (Louisville Classical Academy), who clearly relished her chance to speak both his witty prediction of Richard’s fall and these famous lines:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wallOr as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
–This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Clara Burton (Floyd Central) did a fine job as the Duke of York, in a concentrated and strong-voiced portrayal of this old man beset by Richard’s poor judgment on the one hand and the treason of his own son on the other. One of the challenges of casting men’s parts with women is the relative highness and weakness of women’s voices, particularly in a play full of bitter arguments and challenges to personal combat, but Ms. Burton’s York was full of mettle. Brooke Morrison (YPAS) as Bolingbroke has another good voice and was also very strong and centered in the part.
Walden is particularly good at training its young actors to get their mouths around Shakespeare’s language, and speak it as if it were their normal speech, and Emma Pfitzer Price (YPAS) had a fine realism both to her characterizations and her lines as the traitorous Green and the quick-tempered Fitzwater. Other minor characters also spoke well, among them Caitlin Sullivan (a homeschooler) as Northumberland, Imogen Cooper (Highland Middle) as Henry Percey, and Kora Duvall (KCD) as the Bishop of Carlisle. Anne Shook (Sacred Heart), who got to play both the traitor Bagot and the king’s murderer, Sir Perce of Exton, had a stillness to her performances that gave her characters added menace.
But the play is Richard’s to make or mar, and Chloe Bell (YPAS) as Richard had a tension, a self-absorption, a strength of voice and a focus that made his destruction a noble ruin. Altogether this is a good performance of a fine play that is not often done, and hence all the more worth going to see.
Richard II, running in repertory with As You Like It and Pericles
as part of the Young American Shakespeare Festival
May 8-10-12-15 at 7:30
May 17 at 2:00
The Nancy Niles Sexton Theatre
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40204