Richard II

By William Shakespeare (St. Louis Shakespeare Company)

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When he wrote Richard II in the mid-1590s, Shakespeare was experienced in maneuvering bureaucratic systems. By then, he'd established himself as an important London playwright, courted the Earl of Southampton for funding and helped found the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Indeed, Richard II shows an uncanny understanding of how all politics are local and the ruler who disregards the wishes of the party bosses is doomed. Virtually every one-term U.S. president has more than a little Richard II embedded -- paranoid, willful and ultimately incapable of sticking to a decision.

Justice and love-gone-awry seemed to preoccupy the Bard at this time in his career, which also saw productions of The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream. Richard II is texturally rich but literally devoid of action (save the finis, when the titular ruler is dispatched by Sir Pierce of Exton -- guess how). The tension comes from irresolute Richard's mishandling of a dispute between his righteous cousin Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), who accuses Thomas Mowbray, the Duke of Norfolk, of stealing army funds and scheming to murder the king's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. When Richard exiles the disputants instead of letting them settle the business with swordplay, as any sensible monarch would, his vacillation sets the stage for the tragedy that unfolds. "Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer" is one political caveat that eludes Richard, who then seizes Bolingbroke's property to fund a war in Ireland. Bolingbroke returns to defend his rights, and from that point forward Richard hasn't a chance of maintaining his throne. Bolingbroke, of course, continued to fascinate the Bard, who continued the story through Henry IV, parts 1 and 2.

With five acts and a doctoral dissertation's worth of soliloquys, plots and counterplots but relatively little direct conflict, one wonders what on earth St. Louis Shakespeare Company director Maria Aladren thought she was doing with this densely textured play, which needs a delicate touch rather than someone desperately searching for the drama. Why have Richard killed twice? Why stage scenes with liegemen kneeling, sitting or squatting on the stage? Or standing like pointers on parade, each holding a sword in precisely the same way? Other blocking concerns include the bizarre behavior of these peers, who treat the king as if he were the wet blanket at the frat party, pawing and mauling him without regard for his position. Do we really need all those swords clattering to the floor as scene-punchers? And if the offstage actors are going to be seated in a semicircle around the dreary wooden wall that constitutes scenery, divested of their colorful velvet duds, shouldn't they get right back there? John of Gaunt reappeared some time after his offstage death, but why was much of the cast required to sit and watch like benched Little League players having to show good sportsmanship? Finally, and most unforgivably, why have the actors run lickety-split through this frankly gorgeous pentameter as if they were banging out business letters on a manual typewriter, and the moment the lines have a tinge of emotional content, why have the actors SCREAM and BELLOW with the same frantic pacing?

As Richard, Bob Koerner has much of his text down cold but seems incapable of understanding what any of it means. This king should have the delicate clumsiness of, say, Al Gore -- he's constantly well meaning, but Koerner's monarch has neither depth nor charisma. (Could someone point out that "Antipodes" doesn't rhyme with "nematodes"?) Some improvement was evident after the intermission, when the king knows he's down and probably out, but how can you not feel the pathos and the passion in lines like "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me; for now hath time made me his numbering clock"?

Some actors show sensitivity toward the prose, or the potential to understand the words they are uttering; they include Dennis Saldana as Thomas Mowbray and Kevin Beyer as John of Gaunt (who gets his own Henry-ish "this sceptor'd isle" speech as a present for departing the show early). Tom Simmons as the Duke of York has an appropriately coarse presence as this longtime fixer, but again, articulation issues mar the performance.

Production values are earnestly halfhearted -- a repeated descending scale on what sounded like the "celestial voices" program of a MIDI between scenes, for example, stunningly dim lighting and cutesy-poo business with a chess set and hand mirrors. The one imaginative bit of staging comes at the close, when the peers carry a white tablecloth set with a single red rose into the court by the corners, as if it were a coffin. Of course, when they let go, the material flutters to the floor -- a rare lyrical moment.

Richard II continues through July 23.

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