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Monday, October 24, 2022
REVIEW: TAUT, COMPELLING, INVENTIVE, "RICHARD II" A TRAIL-BLAZING PRODUCTION @ LUNA STAGE
When I read the press release that said four actors would portray 16 characters in a 90-minute version of William Shakespeare’s history play, Richard II, I wondered whether Luna Stage had lost its theatrical mind.
Well, I am happy to report that the company still has all its marbles and has, in fact, successfully produced the world premiere of Zachary Elkind’s compelling, inventive, creative rendition of a rather dry examination of leadership. As the opening production of the 2022-2023 season, this Richard II reimagines a classic play, something Artistic Director Ari Laura Kreith noted as being part of Luna Stage’s mission.
At its core, the plot involves a quarrel between King Richard II, the Plantagenet King of England, and his first cousin Henry Bolingbroke, which erupts when Richard banishes Henry for 10 years as punishment for his accusing another noble of treason. When, to finance his military campaign in Ireland, Richard seizes Henry’s inheritance, alienates the House of Commons and levies exorbitant taxes on the nobles, moves which ensure his unpopularity, he incites Bolingbroke who returns to England with eight ships carrying 3,000 men, ostensibly to reclaim his inheritance but with a bigger prize on his mind.
What makes this powerful investigation of the dangers of unchecked power work so well is the vision of Director Elkind and costume designer Alyssa Korol. Performed in the round on a stage adorned only by a floor circle of flowers , four talented actors—Giuliana Carr (Richard II (above, right, in prison), Nathan Darrow (Bolingbroke, Green, Ross and a Gardener), Darin F. Earl II (John of Gaunt, Bagot, Duke of York, and Hotspur), Gabby Policano (Mowbray, Aumerle, Bushy, and Northumberland)—switch roles easily by donning sunglasses, hats and knee pads, often while turning on a dime from one character to another.
What’s interesting about Richard II is that neither Richard nor Bolingbroke is an attractive character. Carr’s Richard is selfish, arrogant and vindictive throughout much of the action, but she invests the character with dignity and sympathy for his ultimate loneliness as the drama draws to a close.
Earl is terrific as Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt; his impassioned speech extolling the virtues of England reveals his love of country and deep grief at Richard’s governance is moving. As a man struggling with family loyalty, tradition and expediency, Policano’s Aumerle is the model of loyalty to his sovereign, only to be mightily disappointed when Richard caves so easily to Bolingbroke’s aggression. The final meeting of the two is really shocking and unexpected, even to the dismay of usurper Bolingbroke!
The “costumes”—really khaki pants, green leather jacket and shirts, and work boots—work very well to delineate the characters without detracting from what’s really important in Elkind’s adaptation: the language. Indeed, he has said that he was inspired by the timely resonances, as well as the humor and poetry, of this seldom-produced classic. “Shakespeare's thrilling, complex language cuts right to the questions we're asking ourselves today. If power is concentrated in one person, is the exercise of that power fundamentally unjust and arbitrary? And if being in power makes a person unable to realize even their own humanity, how can anyone hope to be a ‘good’ king?” This message comes through loud and clear without the usual lush, regal trappings that often accompany one of the Bard’s History Plays!
Cameron Filepas' lighting is appropriately moody and ominous. The play is performed without an intermission, so to mark transition among the five acts, so Elkind has designed projections of numbers on the stage to keep us aware of the passage of literal and figurative time. Too, as the actors perform, the perfect circle of flowers is disturbed; by the final act, Carr’s Richard uses a broom to sweep them up to reveal a bare circle that will serve as a cell in the Tower of London, where the usurped King sits barefoot under flickering fluorescent lights so reminiscent of solitary confinement in prisons of today.
While Richard II is rarely performed, the events depicted have great historical import. Shakespeare presents the genesis of the centuries-long Wars of the Roses as a personal conflict between two individuals. It is also the study of a leader who believed he ruled by “divine right” as God’s reincarnation on earth, only to meet his downfall because he forgot about the people he was to lead. It’s a mighty lesson for all leaders, at all times, to heed.
This taut, intimate, heartbreaking political tragedy highlights what can happen when a leader who places himself above those he governs faces the threat of another leader in closer touch with the people—disrupting the government and making people afraid.
“Living in a fraught political time, with an unsecured succession and the ever-present threat of violent insurrection or civil war, Shakespeare wrote a play that daringly considers whether any structured, hierarchical form of power can be legitimate,” Elkind noted. Sound familiar?
Richard II will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, through November 13. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. Ticket price suggestions range from $10-$80. As part of their commitment to equity and access, all Luna Stage programs are Pay-What-You-Choose. This means that for any Luna Stage performance, class, summer camp or special event, participants can choose a price that feels comfortable. There are no forms, no qualifications, no questions. Everyone gets the same great seats, the same special programs, the same theatre magic!
Masking at Luna Stage is optional. To ensure everyone’s comfort, the theatre offers a fully masked seating section for those who wish it.
For information and tickets, call the box office at (973) 395-5551 or visit AudienceView Professional (ovationtix.com) online.
NOTE: For all the hullaballoo about the current Broadway production of Death of a Salesman being the first to feature an all-Black case, it should be noted that way back in October 2007, Luna Stage mounted a similar version, “an electrifying, engrossing production worthy of inaugurating Luna Stage’s fifteenth season” as I wrote in my review at the time!