Yale Repertory Theater, New Haven
Let’s hear it for King Richard. In Yale Rep’s physically stunning but dramatically uninspired production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” Jeffrey Carlson’s eponymous monarch so dominates that the other actors can scarcely catch their breath. From his sarcastic first line (“Old John of Gaunt, time-honoured Lancaster”) to his final self-pitying yet defiant ones (“Mount, mount, my soul! Thy seat is up on high / Whilst my gross flesh sinks downward, here to die”), Carlson is eccentric and amusing.
He’s also petulant, fey, childish, sardonic and tearful as the vain king. True, Carlson’s not regal, a major fault, but he fascinates even when rushing many lines into incomprehensibility. That he runs away with the play as well as his character is unsurprising, considering his surroundings.
Director Evan Yionoulis’ production evokes neither empathy nor grandeur, becoming ever more ludicrous and empty as it lurches towards its conclusion. Yionoulis turns Shakespeare’s lyrical tragedy into a drawing-room comedy.
Richard isn’t a likable guy yet he ought to grow in stature and introspection as he shrinks in power. This is the famous “bucket” play, where Richard’s fortunes descend as those of his usurper, Bolingbroke, ascend. As he dares Bolingbroke to “seize the crown,” Richard describes the golden orb as “like a deep well / That owes two buckets filling one another / The emptier ever dancing in the air / The other down, unseen and full of water.”
Shakespeare treats Richard as some kind of fool, but he’s heaven’s fool, a Christ-like king who rules by divine right. To depose a monarch is akin to impeaching a president. At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, Elizabeth I, facing a rebellion by the Earl of Essex, famously said, “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”
Shakespeare’s audiences got the contemporary references. Modern audiences will draw their own conclusions about a play in which an unpopular head of state starts an ill-advised war, bankrupts a nation and financially benefits his pals.
The work is filled with gorgeous poetry, from John of Gaunt’s elegiac “This happy breed” to Richard’s despairing “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” At Yale, the estimable Alvin Epstein struggles with Gaunt’s speech (yet does better when he doubles as the Gardener). For “sad stories,” Carlson plops himself on the floor like a spoiled brat.
Playing the king who invented the handkerchief, Carlson is a combination of Noel Coward, Judith Anderson and Charles Busch. There’s Coward’s fastidious snobbery in “a little, little grave”; actress Anderson’s over-the-top rants; drag star Busch’s campiness in Carlson’s delicate lifting of his cloak, impatient tapping of his ring, tilting of his head and clutching of his breast. It’s a mannered, merry performance, admittedly all of a piece but one that stays on the same level and elicits titters from the audience.
Still, it might have worked if the rest of the cast spoke and moved better. There are exceptions: George Bartenieff’s Duke of York, Christopher McHale’s Bishop of Carlisle and Allen E. Read’s Aumerle chief among them.
Brenda Davis’s spare setting, surrounded by Plexiglas tombs of past monarchs, is haunting. Ji-Youn Chang’s lighting, Melissa E. Trn’s costumes and Mike Yionoulis’ music are impressive.
But this three-hour production is a thing of shreds and patches. We don’t get all that much Shakespeare in this country that we can afford to squander opportunities.
-- David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 1, 2007