Michael Cumpsty in Richard II
(© Joan Marcus)
Michael Cumpsty in Richard II
(© Joan Marcus)
In a season in which King Lear is unquestionably Shakespeare's man of the hour, Classic Stage Company is to be commended for re-introducing one of England's lesser-known monarchs, Richard II. Actually, for many theatergoers, this production, with Michael Cumpsty giving a strong if not altogether convincing performance in the title role, is not a re-introduction, but an initial meeting. Sadly, Brian Kulick's problematic rendering of this rarely-performed play doesn't make a good first impression.

Written by the Bard in 1595, the same year he penned the far superior Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer Night 's Dream, Richard II looks at the last two years of the reign of the troubled king. He was murdered at age 33, shortly after "voluntarily" giving up the throne to his powerful colorful cousin, Henry Bolingbroke -- aka King Henry IV. Indeed, this somewhat unexciting play's greatest value is as a prequel to Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I and would best be performed in tandem with that more familiar work rather than on its own.

Moreover, audience members without a really firm grasp of English history -- which includes practically all of America -- will likely be confused by the play's opening scene. Here, Bolingbroke accuses another royal, Thomas Mowbray, of murdering his and Richard's uncle, The Duke of Gloucester, perhaps on Richard's orders. Shakespeare never answers the question of whether or not Richard was involved in his uncle's death or bothers to examine its larger implication. Instead, the dispute seems little more than a plot device, since when Richard chooses to settle it by banishing both parties from England, the beginning of his downfall has begun. And when he later seizes all of Bolingbroke's land and assets upon the death of his father, John of Gaunt, in order to finance his war on Ireland, the final die is cast.

Richard's personality is a far cry from many of Shakespeare's other crown-holders; he's unusually poetic and intelligent, a tad passive, and rather too convinced that his power as King is derived from divine right, and is therefore unassailable. In these ways, Richard is clearly meant to be a stark contrast to the blunter, more animalistic Henry. But Kulick practically reverses the situation, with Cumpsty giving a highly passionate and at times Hamlet-like performance as Richard, and Graham Winton serving up such a doughy and wan Henry that it seems impossible to believe he managed to mobilize all of England against the reigning monarch. It may be Kulick and Cumpsty's intention to rehabilitate Richard's reputation -- or simply a desire not to do the play in the conventional way -- but it's hardly a persuasive strategy.

Kulick also fails the play in much of his casting, and asking seven of his 10-member troupe to play multiple parts is a questionable choice. Jon DeVries gives a fierce if monotonous performance in all of his roles, from John of Gaunt to a lowly gardener, while David Greenspan's fey presence and idiosyncratic line readings work well enough for the rebel priest Carlisle, but less so for Bagot. Doan Ly overacts as Queen Isabelle, though she wears Oana Botez-Ban's glamorous, modern-dress costumes well. On a brighter note, Craig Baldwin is quite fine as the fiery Mowbray and properly despicable as the bloodthirsty Northumberland.

Oddly enough, the focus of this Richard II essentially ends up on Richard's remaining uncle, the Duke of York, who is given a meticulous rendition by George Morgofen. A man whose commitment to the laws of England is paramount, York seems worthy of his own Shakespearean drama. Although the scenes late in the play, when York is willing to sanction the death of his own son, Aumerle (the very good Jesse Pennington) while his wife (the excellent Ellen Parker) pleads otherwise, elicit a little too much laughter, they nevertheless bring the stage to life in ways the rest of the show too infrequently does.

When your mind wanders, as it will, you can focus on the clever flooring of set designer Tom Gleeson, which transforms from plush red carpet to green tarp to dirt-filled ground and back again, as well as the oversized Warholian painting of what appears to be a young Cumpsty that is the show's overwhelming visual motif. That the words of the world's greatest playwright too often play second fiddle to these design elements is just one indication of how this Richard II fails its subject.