Rarely included among the Bard's masterworks, the history play is nevertheless mighty appealing for several reasons. The first is its portrait of the titular late 14th-century's monarch (Sean McNall), whose foolishly arrogant sense of divine right causes him to come to realize only slowly his standing as no more nor less than a mere mortal.
All the while, he speaks some of the most stunning rhymed iambic-pentameter couplets Shakespeare ever penned. Indeed, the script operates neatly as a metaphor for humankind's disillusioning realization -- and gradual acceptance -- of mortality.
Initially banishing his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Grant Goodman), as well as Thomas Mowbray (Chris Mixon), for the destructive continuation of their mutually slanderous hatefest, Richard sets in relief the internecine challenges to the English throne. More clearly than any of Shakespeare's histories, the heated action subliminally serves to explain England's monarchy succession and the Lancaster-rule origins.
Yet not only is Richard II a helpful history lesson, it's also an insistent poem to England with its virtually countless references to the blessed indigenous soil. When characters aren't kissing the ground or bending their knees to it, they're singing its praises as if founding members of a national tourist agency -- "this scepter'd isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars," as John of Gaunt (Dan Kremer) only begins to describe.
Playing the liege at the outset as charmingly but unrealistically sure of his invincibility -- and therefore not to be challenged on his decisions -- McNall allows the king's understanding of common humanity to seep into him slowly but, in time, agonizingly. He alternately repels and commands sympathy, which is an actor's accomplishment worth witnessing.
For his part, Kremer's characterization is just one of the production's strengths. He's particularly enthralling when his fury mounts while delivering that endlessly famous speech about England. The outburst becomes a diatribe against what the dying man sees as an unraveling of his country's preeminence.
As Bolingbroke -- who on Richard's downfall becomes Henry IV -- Goodman is a fine figure of aristocratic outrage and determination. Sporting a tight helmet of blond hair and towering over Richard (which makes an unmissable point about Henry's prospects), he seems to travel in his own spotlight.
Bill Christ -- every bit an emblem of wise maturity as one of Richard's still living uncles, Edmund, Duke of York -- speaks Shakespeare's language with the clarity and understanding that goes an immeasurable way towards keeping the play fresh and current. When the Duke's loyalty to his monarch/nephew is tested, Christ movingly conveys the painful interior debate at play.
The other Pearl cast members -- among them, Dominic Cuskern, Wayne T. Carr, Robin Leslie Brown, Carol Schultz, and Jolly Abraham -- do noticeably well. As several of them take on multiple roles without sufficiently differentiating affects, however, director Sullivan runs the risk of confusing spectators as to who's playing whom.
Nor are they helped enormously by Martha Halley's costumes, which give the impression of representing certain necessary if unpleasant budget decisions. On the other hand, Harry Feiner's dark set, featuring gloomy archways and two striking stained-glass windows, is nicely in the highly respectable production's favor.