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It's the Acting, Stupid 

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RICHARD II

Goodman Theatre

In the second act of Richard II, when the feckless, self-pitying king is about to be deposed by implacable Bolingbroke--the rival he's banished, whose land he's confiscated--Richard delivers his ironic assessment of kingly greatness. Sobered by imminent peril, grander in despair than he ever was in glory, Richard says: "Within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court."

In Shakespeare's histories it's a hollow crown indeed, too often won by default, when the preceding monarch has exhausted his nation's or his barons' patience. Richard is stained by the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, and killing with impunity he seeks to rob with impunity, by issuing edicts. Then he too falls victim--to Henry IV, one more king with blood on his hands and reason to fear. The crown is not only hollow but carries a curse.

That sense of doom is what fascinates in Richard II--the working out of a malign destiny, as a tragic king essentially overthrows his own rule. If Shakespeare adopted any characters as his own, Richard was certainly one of them: the Bard crowns the initial arrogance of this petulant, histrionic ruler with splendid valedictory scenes, which give the character an unforced pathos and Christ-like resignation, as well as distinctive curses for his enemies. Richard never seems more kingly than when he's been dethroned: his speech ranges from glorious to godlike. Deprived of his divine sanction for earthly mischief, he develops an obsession with death to rival Hamlet's. Losing the crown, he fears he's lost his sole nobility, smashing a mirror to complete the loss.

You have to look hard to find nobility in Goodman Theatre's enterprising but wildly uneven modern-dress production of Richard II. A sporadically inspired but often self-indulgent effort, it substitutes anachronistic touches for a genuine vision of the play and its politics. And swift scene changes can't camouflage the emptiness of several key performances.

As shaped by director David Petrarca, Jeffrey Hutchinson's Richard is first a pompous popinjay surrounded by effete parasites (the "caterpillars of the commonwealth"), and next a demented political prisoner in a straitjacket, with paltry little gradation or dignity between. Relying too much on technique for his tantrums, Hutchinson so overplays Richard's initial neurasthenia that he leaves little room for the even more operatic later scenes; despite his bluster, this is not a king to fear, much less pity. (It doesn't help that in his abdication speech Hutchinson suggests, in posture, gesture, and voice, Tricky Dick's snarling, crazed departure from the White House. Is the joke worth it?)

If Richard is weird, Bolingbroke is picture-perfect. Chuck Huber's boyish, soft-spoken, invincibly valiant future king seems a cardboard cutout of classic chivalry, except that he's dressed like a corporate honcho and surrounded by buttoned-down lawyers: his usurpation resembles a hostile takeover, an anachronism that further trivializes the tale.

The anachronistic approach reaches its nadir in two scenes. During Richard's trial, the warring earls are supposed to hurl down gauges of battle; for the sake of a cheap joke, Petrarca has his dapper counselors slap down their legal briefs, over and over. If he means to spoof our era's lack of heroism, it's small satire and, coming at this stage of the play, perilously distracting. Petrarca also gives sitcom treatment to the ugly squabble between the Duke of York and his wife, as he accuses and she defends their son, charged with treason; the scene is played here like an outtake from Family Feud. By this point we don't need comic relief--we need some genuine tragedy.

Still, Mike Nussbaum's Duke of York, a grand old man made up of senile valor and untarnished dignity, is a major blessing; no concept dampens this man's tensile acting. William J. Norris offers a strangely pleasant John of Gaunt, amiable to his last breath, even when cursing the skin off his royal nephew. Richard's queen is Gina Lo Verde, a hearing-impaired actress whose lines are spoken by Jacqueline Williams; this unusual casting is justified by the intensity of Lo Verde's expressions and of her signing. But when she actually speaks her last line, the casting seems too deliberate, possibly for the sake of sensation.

In the good scenes, someone trusted the material. Steve Pickering is wry as a gardener who wishes the kingdom had been pruned and nurtured as efficiently as his plants, and Richard's assassination scene has a ferocious spontaneity that the delivery of the speeches overall never matches. The actors tend to fall into singsong cadences, pouncing on words rather than working but the thoughts--a bad habit American actors must fight when they tackle the Bard.

Sometimes Goodman sets swallow the acting alive, but these are fairly benign and free of tricks (though the scene in which a naked Richard emerges from his bath is worthy of Barnum). Russell Metheny's design contrasts his rolling set pieces of neo-Gothic scaffolding with the theater's all-purpose cyclorama, on which lighting designer James F. Ingalls has projected some gorgeous surging cloud patterns.

HENRY IV, PART I

Folio Theatre Company

Continuing where Richard II leaves off, Henry IV, Part I spins out Shakespeare's curse of kingship with Richard's successor. Henry IV, the former Bolingbroke, is haunted by his bloody usurpation, an act that seems to have invited open hunting on the throne: he himself is threatened by the fiery northerner Harry "Hotspur" Percy and his allies Mortimer and Douglas. Worse, heir to the throne Prince Hal, who should defend his father's ill-gotten gains, is busy carousing in taverns with various wastrels, including of course Shakespeare's most delightful creation, the shameless, adipostic rogue Sir John Falstaff.

If Richard II closely chronicles the aristocratic squabbles of the House of Lancaster, Henry IV depicts the other side of English society, a world of rollicking drinking and debauchery and of practical jokes, like Hal's trick of "robbing" Falstaff on the road to Gadshead, then watching the shameless old liar turn his cowardice into boasting. But though Hal may spoof his father in a hilarious mock debate with Falstaff, in a crisis he comes through, defending his throne by battling the intemperate Hotspur. Hal's slumming creates the standard against which an astounded world can measure his rise to grace.

It's a rare production that lifts the audience's interest to the level of excitement. Proving triumphantly that less is more, Folio Theatre Company's wonderful Henry IV, Part I grows with the telling, from the added introduction, a dumb show of Richard's murder enacted in Henry's face, to the equally bloody end, when the hollow crown rests as uneasily as ever on the king's head. Director Alec Wild has done good work before (Folio's resourceful Romeo and Juliet, for example), but Henry IV marks a quantum leap. Powerfully crafted, well paced, and riding a flood of intelligent energy, Wild's concept-free staging leaves nothing to chance; with a few period costumes, next to no scenery, and some well-coached accents, this production demonstrates that all you really need are two boards and a passion, or to update the adage: it's the acting, stupid (a precept the Goodman might be wise to recall).

Despite the title, Henry IV really belongs to Prince Hal, the future warrior king. Though David Mitchell Ghilardi layers the title role with the defensive dignity of an insecure monarch, mightily browbeating his prodigal son, for all his bluster Henry IV has no moral right to oppose Hotspur's rebellion. At best he's just protecting his turf, and our interest lies elsewhere: it's Hal who, drinking or fighting, wins our care. Christopher Gerson's electric performance is informed by an unforced valor and raw intelligence. Gerson can turn a scene on a dime, undercutting the Boar's Head hilarity to expose the calculation beneath Hal's raillery; yet in Gerson's potent mix of wisdom and folly, Hal's compassion for Falstaff is as certain as his disdain. Not since Kevin Gudahl played Horatio in Wisdom Bridge's Hamlet has there been a more promising Shakespearean debut.

Falstaff must be larger than life or he's nothing. Crude, brusque, and voracious in the role, Jack Sanderson is on the verge of creating a monumental old sinner, but he has to resist the urge to rush his lines, and pathos must be mingled with Falstaff's bluster. (Also, Sanderson is too young--the character is 60, a contrast to young Hal that can't be minimized.) In the second half--when every principal seemed to achieve his personal best--Sanderson makes Falstaff a lovable life force, and even more lovable because his portrayal sobers as the character does.

As the well-named Hotspur, Robert H. Kimmel is a powerful presence, magnificently suggesting the headstrong impatience that dooms this born warrior and his contempt for public opinion, which means he exposes his intentions where Hal craftily conceals his. Among many deft supporting players, Paul E. Mullins is notable for the clever fun he has with the besotted Bardolph.

Forget all the kingly rebellions. The biggest overthrow is Folio Theatre's of the Goodman.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.

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