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Watch your back, cousin; weak king topples in Pearl Theatre's strong 'Richard II'
NEW YORK (AP) ' William Shakespeare's "Richard II" contains much eloquent poetry, yet King Richard is a problematic hero, often petulant, insecure and misguided, not unlike the leaders of many countries before and since his time of the late 14th century.
Sean McNall strikes all those notes and more, giving his Richard a moody, decidedly childlike air in The Pearl Theatre Company's satisfying production of "Richard II," that opened off-Broadway Sunday night in a limited run. Twelve cast members portray over 30 characters, all directed with precision by J.R. Sullivan, artistic director at The Pearl.
The rise of one leader at the expense of another, in this case cousins, is always fascinating. Grant Goodman is intense and commanding as Henry Bolingbroke, prone to a dark, laserlike stare as he ferociously conveys Henry's strict sense of honor. Bolingbroke turns against his king/cousin after Richard impetuously exiles him over a feud involving the suspicious death of the Duke of Gloucester, to the dismay of many nobles and commoners, and then usurps Bolingbroke's family fortune upon the death of his father.
McNall is almost delicate as Richard. Clinging to the belief in his divine right of kingship, Richard's innocent demeanor lights up as he naively reassures himself, "Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king."
Dan Kremer compassionately portrays Bolingbroke's dying father, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. On his deathbed, he bemoans the state of England under Richard's careless rule, in a long speech that includes the words, "This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,...That England, that was wont to conquer others, Hath made a shameful conquest of itself."
However, while Richard is out of the country quashing a rebellion in Ireland, Bolingbroke boldly returns from exile to retrieve his fortune, having amassed an army that builds of its own accord, with nearly all Richard's former allies ' and relatives ' eventually turning against the king.
As the Duke of York, grieved and conflicted uncle of both young men, Bill Christ provides a firm moral center around which swirl the quickly-changing tides of fate, yet soon enough York is also vacillating over loyalty to king versus country. Jolly Abraham is increasingly despairing as Richard's queen, who can't understand why he gives up so easily to his cousin. Richard admits as much himself, with McNall providing some credible weeping as events overcome Richard. Presenting his crown to Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, Richard says ruefully, "With mine own tears I wash away my balm, With mine own hands I give away my crown..."
Chris Mixon shines as Bolingbroke's enemy, making a spirited show as unfairly exiled Thomas Mowbray, and then becomes the rebellious Earl of Northumberland, Bolingbroke's staunch ally. Carol Schulz gives a pleasingly comical performance as the Duchess of York, who late in the play must plead with Bolingbroke for the life of her son Aumerle.
Harry Feiner's somber, spare scenic design is occasionally brightened by Stephen Petrilli's simple, effective lighting, and by rich textiles in Martha Hally's costumes. The Pearl has created a strong showing of "Richard II," giving the complicated play a high energy level that never flags.