William Shakespeare's "Richard II" is sort of like the middle film in a movie trilogy: a vehicle to carry a story to the next installment. It is a history play, part of the story of how the Tudor family came to rule over England (a kind of Tudor propaganda that certainly pleased Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth I). Despite the historical name-dropping, I was aptly entertained and applaud Richmond Shakespeare for taking on one of The Bard's lesser-known plays.
Richard II is a rock star, destined for doom by the flip way he handles decisions and the pleasure he takes in surrounding himself with second-rate groupies. His is the story of the downfall of a monarch who seems to have little to do, considering the lack of action in the first act coupled with the lack of "things" for the actors to do on the sparse set.
But Willy shakes it up in the second act. He gives us a funny gauntlet-throwing scene and some good bits centered on the Duke of York and his family, only to end lamely with the new king running off to Jerusalem to pray for forgiveness. Like many celebrities these days.
The Richmond Shakespeare version opens with a minstrel strumming out an acoustic version of the Police song "Message in a Bottle," hinting that a rock star's heady life is going to play out on the stage. Although Mike Newman has the appropriate lead-singer smoldering energy, his Rickie Deuce falls a little short, going from egotistical bore to whiny deposed loser. To his credit, Newman gives the proper double meaning to the line, "Here I bear the burden like an ass," but misses the opportunities to really throw some needed sarcasm into the role.
The jewel in this crown is Stephen Ryan's portrayal of the Duke of York. He masters the language of Shakespeare and makes the audience believe and understand the words through his excellent inflections, use of throwaway lines and appropriate body language for the intimate space. He's especially effective in an amusing scene in the second act in which the Duke of York is listening to his wife rant about how he doesn't care about the fate of their treasonous son. Ryan plays straight man to Julie Phillips' nutcase Duchess of York, resonating with anyone who has ever dealt with a hysterical partner.
This is a tough play to put on, but Richmond Shakespeare is nevertheless engaging. Just do yourself a favor and read up on it first. S
Richmond Shakespeare's "Richard II," directed by James Ricks, runs through Nov. 4 at Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Richmond. Tickets are $13-$24. Show times are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For more information go to www.richmondshakespeare.com.