Richard II - Stephen Cole Hughes - Off Broadway Theater Review
HANGING AROUND WITH SHAKESPEARE
by Alexander Harrington
published May 18, 2010
now playing Off Broadway at The Tank
through May 24
Steven Cole Hughes’ production of Richard II is thrilling theatre;
however, it obscures much of the story it is supposed to tell.
Hughes’ staging, produced by his own Matchbook Productions and Sonnet
Repertory Theatre, employs trapezes. Though I am too young to have seen it, when I heard about
Peter Brook’s famous circus production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it made perfect sense to
me. The logic of Richard II on trapeze is not so
apparent: fairies fly; English monarchs do not. But
surprisingly, the production works in many ways. Suspending a king above his subjects makes his power manifest (were this production concerned
with the story and ideas of Richard II, it might also visually represent Richard’s belief in his
own divinity). The trapeze is effectively used to stage executions and spectacularly used to
create a ship. Turning two trapezes into a floating bier for Richard’s corpse is emotionally
The trapeze is used for bathos as well pathos. For any
Shakespeare wonk who knows that Richard II’s Harry Percy goes on to become Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I, his exaggeratedly heroic and self-serious flying entrances are hilarious. The only sequence in the play that is written to be comic is when the Duke of York pleads to the new King
Henry Bullingbrooke to execute York’s traitorous son, while his wife pleads for clemency. The
family races to the king on horseback, the father seeking to outrace the son and the wife seeking to overtake her husband. Shakespeare leaves this chase off-stage; Hughes does not, turning trapezes into horses and having
his air-borne actors wiggle their tushies as they gallop.
Music plays a significant role in Hughes’ production. It is performed by Nathan Cohen and Matt Dallow, but no composer is credited. The style is Central-European/Klezmer, which gives a Weimar cabaret feel to the production. Indeed, this, coupled with the men’s costumes (designed by Emily Lippolis and composed of grey, high-waisted
early 20th Century trousers held up by suspenders, along with long-sleeve undershirts) and the obvious artificiality of a
production on trapeze, makes the show seem Brechtian. The setting of some of Shakespeare’s lines
to music is effective. One such song is coupled with the above-mentioned trapeze ship to create a
powerful coup de theatre.
The set is a bare stage with a white upstage wall and, of, course, trapezes. Since no set designer is credited, I assume this arrangement is the idea of Hughes, lighting designer
Ryan O’Gara, or both, and that whoever is responsible considers it too simple to give himself credit as set designer. This is a mistake. The white wall combines beautifully with
O’Gara’s lighting and adds to the Brechtian ambience of the production.
The visual and visceral power of Hughes’ production stands in contrast to his poor story-telling. Richard II has, perhaps, the most complicated and
ambiguous plot of any of Shakespeare’s plays. It begins with Bullingbrooke accusing the Duke of Norfolk of the murder of Bullingbrooke’s
and Richard’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Bullingbrooke hides this central charge amidst a
litany of inconsequential allegations. In the second scene, in which the Duchess of Gloucester
begs Bullingbrooke’s father John a' Gaunt to avenge her husband’s death, it is revealed that Richard ordered Gloucester’s
murder. Still later in the play, a character other than Norfolk is accused of being Richard’s
agent in the murder. To prevent an open conflict over a murder he ordered, Richard banishes
both Bullingbrooke and Norfolk. John a' Gaunt dies and Richard seizes his estate, thereby
No audience will ever overcome the confusion created by two different characters being accused of being
Richard’s agent in Gloucester’s death. Still, a director must make clear that Richard gave the
order for the killing, and that, in accusing Norfolk, Bullingbrooke is indirectly accusing Richard. Hughes makes a good start when he cuts the extraneous charges from Bullingbrooke’s accusation and has the
court react with shock to his mention of Gloucester’s murder. But then Hughes cuts the scene
in which Richard’s guilt is revealed. Hughes still has two speeches in which he can make
Richard’s culpability clear to the audience: as Gaunt is dying, he says plainly that Richard
killed Gloucester. The Duke of York does the same when Richard seizes Gaunt’s
estate. Hughes obscures these moments. As Gaunt
accuses Richard, the old man is entangled in a rope, performing acrobatics. When York makes
his accusation, Richard places several courtiers on trapezes and sets them swinging to tauntingly buffet York: at this moment, I literally could not make out what York was saying.
Hughes confuses the audience in smaller ways. The spectacular
ship effect comes at the end of a scene in which a Welsh captain is talking to one of Richard’s knights. The knight has a speech about the Welsh captain after the captain leaves the stage. Hughes reassigns this speech to the Welshman, so that he is speaking about himself in the third person
(while this may be an homage to Bob Dole, it makes no sense). The play contains several
references to gages, which are the articles of clothing (usually a glove) which someone casts down to challenge another person to a duel;
to accept, the challenged party picks up the gage. In Hughes’ production, when a character
says “I cast down my gage,” he claps his hand onto a trapeze, leaving the audience baffled as to what a gage is.
The cast has accomplished an unbelievable feat: they audibly and
intelligibly speak complicated verse while doing acrobatics (yes, they often project their voices by shouting, rather than by using support
and resonance, but, to do otherwise, when their breathing must be racing from physical exertion, would be impossible). Many of the cast are graduates of the National Theatre Conservatory in Denver. If the Conservatory’s curriculum includes acrobatics, that explains how most of the cast could be both
accomplished acrobats and skilled actors. If it doesn’t, this cast must have been rehearsing
FOREVER. No matter how they acquired their skills, these actors are breathtakingly
For Shakespeare’s verse to be perceptible to the ear, rather than just being beautiful words that have been
laid out on the page in lines of ten syllables, a director must have his/her cast employ a uniform approach to verse-speaking. Hughes does this, having most of his actors consistently speak in a forward-driven manner.
Vince Nappo is a superb Richard II: he exudes power and confidence, has a strong voice, and conveys the
beauty of Shakespeare’s poetry. While many actors are emotionally indulgent in this role,
Nappo is restrained. After awhile, I thought he was too restrained, and I longed for greater
emotional resonance. Nappo then proved me wrong, delivering that resonance in two well-chosen
moments: Richard’s uncrowning of himself and his Act Five soliloquy.
Khris Lewin very much looks the part of the imposing warrior and enigmatic, no-nonsense politician Henry
Bulligbrooke. His compact, muscular frame attests to soldiering, and his shaved head, black
goatee, and severe features suit the pragmatic Machiavel. Unfortunately, he is unable to give
the gravitas that the part requires to either his relatively high voice or to the delivery of his lines. He is not a bad actor; he is simply, despite his looks, not right for this part.
Daniel Loeser, Brent Rose, and Matt Hostetler (who, late returning from a television shoot, was ably replaced
by Hughes during the first half of the performance I attended) are all skilled at physically differentiating the various characters they
play. Danielle Slavick is very funny as the Duchess of York. The most disappointing
performance is from Kiebpoli Calnek. A woman cast in male roles, she exaggerates male
mannerisms in the style of children’s theatre, so representational and caricatured that she becomes out of step with even the broadest and
most distanced of her colleagues.
On the whole, this cast is talented and superhuman in its discipline. If your main concern is to hear the story of Richard II, go
elsewhere; but if what you're after is stunning theatre, this is the production to see.
alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com
photos by C. Bay Milin
The Tank, 354 West 45 Street (between 8/9 Avenues)
Wed 5/19, Fri 5/21 at 7pm
Sun 5/23 and Mon 5/24 at 7pm
Tickets are $15, General Admission
For tickets visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/99446, or call 800-838-3006.