Shakespeare, Dressed Down

Have you seen Shakespeare's Richard II? Not the one with the snarling, limping serial killer—that's Richard III. Richard II is about the king who thinks he can't be deposed because he was elected by God to start colonial wars and pay off his sniveling, conspiring, hypocritical cronies. Theater of the Expendable's production, retitled Dick 2, is a perfectly serviceable one. Expendable is a young company made up mostly of non-Equity performers who are recent college graduates, some with no professional credits, or none outside Expendable. Therefore, it's not surprising that there is a steep learning curve. Some of the actors gave wooden performances or looked bored while listening to the principals' speeches. Twice, an actor got a wrong start on a line, then backed up and said it again.

Despite this, Dick 2 showcases some promising talents. These include the oratorical, eloquent Jacob Ming-Trent as Richard II and the swaggering Alan McNaney as his nemesis Henry Bullingbrooke. As Richard's queen, Jennifer Lagasse is properly plaintive and argues against their separation with great pathos. The underutilized Raushannah Simmons, playing a few courtiers and a lady-in-waiting to the queen, shows some great facial reactions to overheard bad news and is always in character without ever upstaging the principals. John Forkner gives a vivid turn as a philosophical Gardener.

Expendable is dedicated to producing work that is "spare" yet "transformative." This production is definitely spare: the set consists of a simple wooden chair on an unpainted wooden dais, and a minimal wood-frame box representing a coffin. These few objects are well chosen: the throne and the grave, the defining spaces of Richard's existence.

In some ways, however, more thought needs to be put into what kind of world this minimalism creates, and whether that world is compatible with the script. When "trumpets" are mentioned in the dialogue, we hear what is clearly one trumpet. Courtiers and even the queen sit on the edge of the dais or the floor—and no one remarks upon this strange convention.

The costume design, by Dick stage manager and prop master Marta Tejeda, lacks a cohesive rationale and often violates the terms of the script's world. The actors wear modern dress, which is fine, but the style is uniformly dress casual. Richard's queen, sporting a tunic top, a cardigan, and pants, looked something less than regal even in a modern monarchy. Her clothes allow her a freedom of movement that clashes with the stiff formality of her courtly speeches and deliberately pathetic lamentations. Several of the actresses playing male roles inexplicably wore women's-style suits. One wore low-rise pants that slid down when she knelt, like a knight, to her king. Rebellious warrior Thomas Mowbray (Alisha Soper) wore eye makeup, unlike all of the men played by men.

Minimalism is a great aim, but Shakespeare relied upon costume to delineate status relationships. A world in which a king's uncle can wear a tweed flat cap is not one to which Richard, whose culture reinforces his bullish belief that he is divinely appointed and therefore invincible, belongs.

The dramaturgy, by freelancer Marc Etlin and Expendable founder Geoffrey Roecker, needs some improvement. In the program notes, Richard is described as a "sensitive" and "poetic" type, certainly true of the legendarily introspective child-king but not at all true of Ming-Trent's blustering interpretation.

The press release claims that at the age of 10, Richard became king of "the world's most powerful nation." In 1377, the year of Richard II's coronation, England was dwarfed by the Byzantine empire, China's Ming empire with its million-strong army, and even some of its closest neighbors, such as France. That the tiny archipelago-kingdom of the Plantagenets really rivaled these superpowers is hard to swallow, no matter what John of Gaunt says in his jingoist "sceptred isle" speech, the play's most famous passage.

Finally, the reason why the title has been changed to "Dick 2" is unclear, unless it is a veiled commentary on Vice President Cheney or an attempt to call the haughty protagonist by a suggestively insulting nickname. Because the text has not been modernized as well, "Dick 2" sounds as if it belongs to a different world from the play and seems to patronize its audience.

Dick 2 is by no means a perfect production of Richard II nor an original one, but it is accessible and engrossing. Its minimal production values and complex double- and triple-casting of small roles reflect the production values of Shakespeare's time. An important play historically, it alarmed Queen Elizabeth I with its apparent justification of regicide and was revived in 1601 as a command performance for Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, on the eve of his suicidal attempted coup d'état. If you have not seen it, Expendable offers an approximation of the original production, thankfully without the original danger.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post