The plays of William Shakespeare (not to be confused with the plays of Paco “Shaky” Shakespeare of Walla Walla) fall into four categories: comedies, tragedies, histories and problem plays — and yes, for the more bookish out there I am rolling the romances into the problem play category. The natures of the first three types of play are rather self-explanatory, and the only “problem” with those of the last type is that they don’t fit neatly into any one of the other three rubrics.
The comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing, are lighthearted romps akin to today’s sitcoms or rom-coms. The tragedies, like Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, share DNA with our era’s dramas and melodramas. The histories, among them Henry VIII and Richard III, are decidedly more documentary-like and would have felt right at home on the History Channel before it became a wasteland of reality TV dreck.
The final play of this year’s Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Richard II, marks the beginning of an audacious plan by the CSF to produce, in order, the entire Henriad tetralogy. Following Richard II, the CSF intends to bring forth Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 next year and then to present Henry V as part of the 2015 season. Should the CSF follow this course and reach this goal, it will be a boon for both lovers of Shakespeare’s histories and of British history in general.
Some people complain that Shakespeare’s drier-than-a-Bond-martini histories lack the entertainment value of the tragedies or comedies, and frankly, there is some truth to that gripe. The mistaken identity hijinks and overwrought death and despair of the latter categories are nowhere to be found in the relatively sedate and straightforward histories. Instead of razzledazzle, the Richards, Henrys and John rely on characterization and smatterings of sly, often subversive humor to win audience favor.
Richard II begins with King Richard (Chip Persons) arbitrating a dispute between Thomas Mowbray (Geoffrey Kent) and Henry Bolingbroke (Steven Cole Hughes). Each man accuses the other of treason, and Richard ultimately decides the best solution is to banish both men from the kingdom. Soon after Bolingbroke flees England, his beloved uncle, John of Gaunt (Lawrence Hecht), dies. Needing funding and resources for his war in Ireland, King Richard confiscates all of Gaunt’s, and therefore Bolingbroke’s, property.
There are spoilers ahead, so if you want Richard II’s ending to be a surprise, skip this paragraph and do not read the plot synopsis in the CSF program. Upon hearing what King Richard has done, Bolingbroke amasses an army of Richard’s enemies and erstwhile friends and returns to England to take back his title, lands and wealth. After a nearly bloodless coup, Richard is forced to relinquish the crown, and Bolingbroke becomes the new king. As is the way of things, the deposed Richard is soon thereafter murdered.
The cast of Richard II, especially the central actors, is an all-star team. Though his stage time is limited as Mowbray, Geoffrey Kent, as always, demonstrates a natural, focused acting style. Lawrence Hecht, who gives a brilliantly against-type performance as Puck in this year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, also impresses here, especially in Gaunt’s final scene with the king. In smaller roles, Jamie Ann Romero displays passion and intelligence as Queen Isabel, and Sam Gregory gets to show off his snide side as the Earl of Northumberland. As King Richard, Chip Persons grows the character throughout the play until the entitled opportunist is replaced by a supremely human and sympathetic outcast.
The one complaint I have about Richard II may be laid at the feet of a Russian. To paraphrase Chekhov’s (the author, not the ensign) “gun rule,” if a play introduces a gun in the first act, that gun simply must be fired by the end of the story. In Richard II, duels are offered and accepted on not one but several occasions, and though one such duel is mere moments away from commencing, no duel ever occurs. Call me a Philistine, but a little bloodletting would liven up this otherwise talky, subdued historical account.
Richard II plays through Aug. 11 at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on CU´s campus. Tickets are $10-$59. For tickets or information, call 303-492-8008 or visit www.coloradoshakes.org.