by Jeff Grygny
He holds out his hand, perfectly confident that a glass of wine will instantly be there. His royal purple suit is set off by a glittering yet tasteful crown.He’s vain, preening, and he knows that he’s God’s chosen regent on Earth. He’s Richard II, the King of England: he really does wield absolute power. And he’s fine with that. Unfortunately, his self-esteem is inversely proportional to his governing skills.
It’s understandable why Shakespeare’s history plays, like Richard II, should be so seldom performed (first time in my memory for this one!). They’re full of wordy politics that generally boil down to squabbles between hereditary rich guys: not exactly themes that raise the modern pulse. But in this honest, stylish, and highly entertaining production by Voices Found Repertory, the play comes alive, and even seems weirdly pertinent for a time when tech billionaires challenge each other to fistfights, and a grifter would-be dictator commands the loyalty of great swaths of a supposed democracy.
Director Hannah Kubiak’s frothy interpretation owes as much to Noel Coward as to Holingshead’s Chronicles. Her choice of a Roaring 20’s setting is inspired: with skillful extra-textual actions and vocalizations, you can feel the “anything goes” giddiness—just before things get all too real. Even Richard’s throne is painted with an art deco peacock. And you’ve probably never seen an over-the-top fight scene set to the Charleston before!
As customary in Voices Found shows, there’s no performance below journeyman level, and every player is crystal clear, in diction as well as in character and motivation. We might not grasp every detail of the feudal machinations, but we always know what’s going on in the relationships. This gives us a precious opportunity to see Shakespeare exploring themes and tropes we know from his more famous plays.
In the title role, Kyle Connor is at the center of it all and at the top of his game. His Richard foreshadows Lear’s grandiosity, Richard III’s compulsive oversharing, and Hamlet’s self-conscious ponderings, in a high-wire act between comedy of manners and vertiginous political peril. Connor’s Richard winks, glowers and swans about the stage hilariously, often winning laughs just with a well-timed vocal coo. This fabulously histrionic monarch hogs every scene: when learning of a wronged lord’s rebellion, he calls on England’s wildlife and very earth to defend his anointed right (it doesn’t go well); when abdicating to his rival, he stages a little tug of war with the literal crown; then calls for a mirror and shatters his own reflection This is all great stuff: it probably came right out of the Chronicles, but it could just as easily be a Monty Python routine.
While Richard is sucking the oxygen out of every room, Connor is supported by a sturdy cast who do the heavy narrative lifting as his sycophants, rivals, and enemies. Scott Oehme-Sorensen and Stefan Kent do another Pythonesque turn as a pair of gardeners opining about the doings of the high and mighty. Faith Klick gives Richard’s nameless queen a poignant presence, not least in their surprisingly touching farewell. But overall, this is history as farce, and we just can’t look away from the wreckage.
Reportedly, when the Earl of Essex was plotting to depose Queen Elizabeth, he paid Shakespeare’s company to play Richard II to warm the people to the idea of a coup (it didn’t work). Now, in a time when coups and attention-hogging leaders are in the daily headlines, it’s oddly comforting to know that England got itself into such massive messes and managed to come through. But as Richard’s deposal led to the bloody violence of the Wars of the Roses, it’s also a sobering reminder that coups are always a nasty business— and that rule by drama is seriously overrated.
In Richard II, Voices Found gives us the precious opportunity to appreciate the timeliness of a rarely-seen classic, with a fresh and respectful, but not reverential, take that reveals the play as a minor tragicomic masterpiece and a fascinating peek into the mind of a great playwright.
Voices Found Repertory presents
by William Shakespeare
Playing through September 3