7/9/16-8/13/16

Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
Village Theater of Cherry Hill - Canton, MI
 

"The superb production of Richard II that's part of this year's Michigan Shakespeare Festival is a masterwork of physical staging and nuanced acting."

- Detroit Free Press

"Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s production of Richard II.." - PULP of Ann Arbor

"Blixt's Richard II is devoted to the details and this production commits to telling a historical tale... for fans of Shakespeare or of history, it is a rare opportunity to witness the struggle between forces of a kingdom as it must choose the type of rule it will have.

- Encore Michigan

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RICHARD II

Michigan Shakespeare Festival

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Shakespeare fest stages a regal 'Richard II'

by John Monaghan for The Detroit Free Press

 

4 Stars out of 4 Stars

 

Shakespeare’s plays are full of flawed monarchs, but few sin and suffer as majestically as Richard II, the title character of the 1595 play. The superb production that's part of this year's Michigan Shakespeare Festival is a masterwork of physical staging and nuanced acting, and it also may be the only chance you'll ever have to see this rarely performed play.

Richard II is not to be confused with the better-known Richard III, the Machiavellian hunchback also immortalized by the Bard. This Richard, portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, is a slickly appointed, deliriously self-centered king who begins the play by swiftly settling a dispute between two of his subjects. His version of justice is to banish them both from England, though he shows some last-minute leniency by shortening the sentence of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean) to only six years.

Bolingbroke reluctantly leaves only to hear that Richard has seized Bolingbroke's family fortune, using it to fund a foolhardy war between England and Ireland. While Richard mounts his offensive, Bolingbroke arrives with an invading army to reclaim his wealth and mount the throne.

Compared with other Shakespeare plays, “Richard II” is pretty straightforward stuff. There are few extraneous characters and no complicated subplots. At the heart of the play is a monarch surrounded by flatterers who show their true colors with the arrival of Bolingbroke, who (spoiler alert) will succeed in his quest and be crowned Henry IV.

“Richard II” is officially a history play, paving the way for Shakespeare’s subsequent “Henry” plays. It is also considered a tragedy, a warning to anyone in a position of power about the price that comes with surrounding yourself with flatterers and fair-weather friends.

One of my favorite moments in the play finds three  minions slowly turning their heads in a different direction as the political winds change direction. Another is the hilariously over-the-top scene in which Bolingbroke meets his match in a determined mother, his Aunt Isabella (Janet Haley), who uses every weapon in her persuasive arsenal to beg leniency for her openly traitorous son.

Then there is the scene with the gardeners (Alan Ball and Eric Eilersen), one of those seemingly throwaway Shakespeare moments  that ultimately speak volumes about a play's themes. The scene is at once funny, poignant and heartbreaking as the men’s discussion of how weeds invade a garden leads to the realization by Richard’s queen (Anu Bhatt) that her husband has been deposed.

Director Janice L. Blixt approaches the play with a sure hand, using Suzanne Young’s period-unspecific costumes (business professional for the women, blue-blazer preppy for the men) to echo the universality of its themes. Jeromy Hopgood's main set piece, a pi-shaped arch on its side, suggests the ways the kingdom is off-kilter.

The most important element of this play, of course, is the quality of its Richard. Here Kauzlaric conveys not only the king's extreme vanity but also his insecurity. We hate him at one moment, but then feel his pain at the next as he literally hands over his crown while surrounded by those who previously had pledged to him their undying allegiance.

We a feel a similar ambivalence regarding Robert McLean's Bolingbroke, sharing his outrage one minute and cursing his chilliness the next. Politics, according to “Richard II," is ultimately arbitrary, fickle and flawed.

 

 

Michigan Shakespeare Festival's 'Richard II'

by Jenn McKee for Pulp

 

Sometimes, when you see a Shakespeare play that’s rarely produced, you walk out thinking, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” But then, at other times, like an unexpected gift, you walk out of a production thinking, “Where have you been all my life?” The latter describes my experience with Michigan Shakespeare Festival’s three-hour production of Richard IIRichard II, now playing at Canton’s Village Theater. 

The history play focuses on King Richard (Robert Kauzlaric), who’d been crowned at age 9, after his grandfather Edward III ruled England for 50 years, and his father, the natural heir, died. 

Richard II takes place when Richard has reached adulthood, after wrangling with his father’s brothers for years to retain power. When one of Richard’s cousins, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert McLean), gets into a feud with a noble named Thomas Mowbray (Matt Daniels), who’s accused of being involved in the murder of one of Richard’s uncles, Richard banishes them both, thereby angering Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Alan Ball). The rift sets events in motion, as Gaunt confronts Richard and later dies; Richard leaves England to reclaim power in Ireland; and Bolingbroke returns to England to not just claim his father’s title and land, but also Richard’s crown.

Many factors play into our response to a show, of course: design elements, the language, performers, pacing, the director’s choices, prominent themes, and even what personal experiences we’re bringing with us into the theater. 

For me, this seldom-produced history play opened up near its end, when Richard has been usurped and imprisoned and says: “Alack the heavy day/ That I have worn so many winters out/ And know not now what name to call myself./ … But whate’er I be/ Nor I nor any man that but man is/ With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased/ with being nothing.” In this monologue, Shakespeare reflects not only on the experience of a person’s previously firm sense of identity in freefall, but also our shifting sense of our place in the world as we age – which is to say, the inevitable realization that each of us might not, after all, be super-special snowflakes.

So there’s already some grade A meat to chew on in Richard II, but director Janice L. Blixt’s vision for the show also injects some fun touches. Re-imagined as a contemporary power struggle, MSF’s Richard II features actors in suits and ties and sweater vests (designed by costumer Suzanne Young) instead of the more traditional doublet/hose combo. With this in mind, Richard’s sycophantic, hipster friends, when not laughing at others or rolling their eyes, play a subtle drinking game early in the show, stealing nips from their pocketed flasks each time someone says the king’s name. This led me to viewing the trio of Bushy, Bagot, and Green (Eric Eilersen, Ian Geers, Michael Phillip Thomas) as “the bro courtiers.”

But the center would not hold if not for the truly outstanding work of Kauzlaric, who makes Richard someone we feel probably should be knocked down a peg or two, but perhaps not knocked off the peg board altogether. For Richard is smug and self-assured as king, not to mention compassion-challenged (upon learning of his uncle’s death, he flippantly says, “So much for that”); but these flaws somehow make Richard’s imminent fall all the more searing. When Kauzlaric grips tightly onto the crown, just as Richard’s scheduled to hand it over to Bolingbroke, he delivers a blistering speech, disillusioned by how quickly and easily his life has been dismantled; and in the show’s powerful penultimate scene, when he’s been abandoned by all and left alone in his cell, Kauzlaric presents us with a man earnestly struggling to process grief.

Jeromy Hopgood designed the show’s set, which consists of a seemingly collapsed, slanted gateway (actors often duck while making entrances through it), and a backdrop of church windows hanging at different levels. Visually, the stage picture suggests a wobbly, failing infrastructure, which dovetails well with a play about a young ruler who enjoys the confidence of neither his family nor his subjects. Things really are falling apart.

David Blixt expertly choreographs the production’s sword-fights (and assorted violent acts); David Allen Stoughton designed the lighting, which creates a world outside the brightly lit king’s court that feels ominous and isolating – an effect achieved in concert with Kate Hopgood’s sound design and music composition. And Betty Thomas designed the show’s props.

Of course, Shakespeare’s lesser known history plays often frustrate contemporary audiences; it can feel as though you’re jumping into the middle of an epic novel, and try as you might, there are just too many people, and too much you’ve missed, to make sense of the whole. 

But you can trust that you’re in good hands with director Janice L. Blixt, who has, to name one example, added a brief prologue to Richard II – from an entirely different play – to dramatize the murder that’s at the heart of Bolingbroke and Mowbry’s argument in the true opening scene. (This also, conveniently, sets us up for the shady betrayals and violence to come.) Blixt’s commitment to finding creative ways to fill the gaps in our knowledge on stage, so that we’re better able to plug in and focus on the story being told, demonstrates MSF’s mission writ large: to encourage modern audiences to re-connect with Shakespeare’s work in new, invigorating ways. 

Held to this standard, Richard II passes with flying colors.

 

 

"Richard II" gets rare treatment from Michigan Shakespeare Festival

by Bridgette Redman for EncoreMichigan

 

JACKSON, Mich.– Often, plays presented in the summer are light fares meant for tourists, day trippers and families. Summer stock theaters are known to focus on musicals, comedies and farces.

Not so the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, which is pairing its leading comedy As You Like It with the intellectual and heavily political Richard II.

This is a play for die-hard Shakespeare fans, historians and political scientists. It’s a little-done history that is the prequel to the two Henry IV plays that the Michigan Shakespeare Festival combined and presented last year. It opens and closes with murder and in between are two and a half hours of intense politics, speeches and war-making.

In this history, the young Richard II is beset my nobles and relatives who would help influence his reign, either protecting him from treasons or encouraging him in his warlike ways. There are early political accusations that lead to duel and then showcase Richard’s methods of governing. He proceeds to make rash political decisions that lead to an uprising against him by the Lord whom he exiled before seizing his lands and goods.

The Michigan Shakespeare Festival helpfully provides a family tree and a synopsis to give the audience some of the information that the original Elizabethan audiences would have had as common knowledge. It helps to sort out who all the uncles are and their relation to the young king.

Robert Kauzlaric, one of the Festival’s artistic associates and a frequent director—including of this year’s As You Like It, plays the title role in a rare appearance on the Festival stage. He puts in a multi-layered performance of this talkative king who first ascended to the throne when he was 9 and still bears all the impetuousness of youth. Kauzlaric’s young king is never regal, but is assured in his own power and his expectation that he will be obeyed, even when his commands are thwarted. He claims a divine right to the throne and trusts in that providence to protect him even against his bad decisions.

There is an arc for this spoiled king, and Kauzlaric makes the journey with deliberation, showing a range of great emotion starting with bemusement and traveling through arrogance, excitement, celebration, fear, anger, despair, love, loss and even contentment. He handles well the multiple monologues that Shakespeare thrusts upon this character. Rarely does Richard engage in extended back and forth with others on stage, most of his action consists of long speeches with the occasional bout of intense listening to the monologues of others. In both roles, Kauzlaric creates a Richard who is interesting and who commands attention.

Alan Ball, a Festival artistic associate, and Tobin Hissong, new to the Festival this year, play the three uncles to the young king. They are the older men whose wisdom is neglected and whose position in court is precarious as the young king would sooner listen to young ruffians such as Bush (Eric Eilerson), Bagot (Ian Geers) and Green (Michael Phillip Thomas) who are his drinking buddies and encourage him in his reckless choices. Ball and Hissong bring a gravity to their roles. They are men who are devoted to England and the proper governing of the realm.

Ball is the angry John of Gaunt, a man whose bitterness first begins to show when his son, Bolingbroke, is exiled from the country. From his wheelchair, he delivers a blistering assessment of the realm and takes the king to task, imploring him to change his ways. Ball is ever a strong presence in the Festival, and he provides balance to Richard’s youthful negligence. When he comes back later as a gardener in a brief scene, he sports a low-class accent and takes on an all-new persona.

Hissong portrays the heaviness of loyalty to the crown and the tough decisions that come along with it when faced with overwhelming odds. His Duke of York is a man of principles and Hissong displays the courage and compromise necessary for a man thrust into royal politics and the struggle for a throne and a crown.

Richard’s nemesis, Henry Bolingbroke, is played by Robert McLean and he creates a young man who is the diametric opposite to his king. Where Richard is insolent, Henry is intense and honor-bound. Where Richard’s approach to conquest and war is eager and pursued with gleeful excitement, Henry’s is sober and commanding. McLean plays up the differences between the two men, creating a contrast that is especially powerful when the two men meet late in the play in the royal throne room for the final determination of power.

This is mostly a man’s play, with all the action being determined by the men in charge or wanting to be in charge. However, there are two particularly strong women in the play who have their own parts to play. Janet Haley, this year’s poster child and mainstay on the Michigan Shakespeare Festival stage, is Richard’s aunt, wife to the principled York and mother of a treasonous son. She is devoted to family, something seen early on in her interactions with Gaunt, but really coming out late in the play when she is forced to plead for her son’s life on her knees. Even kneeling, Haley is a powerful force, one no ruler can resist. She is eloquent in her son’s defense and creates stakes that are high for the audience on behalf of a character that is not otherwise thrust into the limelight.

The other strong woman in the show is Anu Bhatt’s Queen Isabella. Director Janice L Blixt gives her unspoken moments with the king early on that show her influence in court and her connection with her husband. From there Bhatt creates a chemistry between the two and displays a devotion to her husband that withstands all the challenges it faces. Her loneliness and heartbreak is touching and Bhatt underlines the fate and loss that Richard experiences.

Blixt makes several choices to bring this production into the present, evoking current headlines such as the British prime minister’s overturning of the cabinet and installation of new ones, the rashness and isolating nature of American electoral politics and even the most recent coup attempt in Turkey. She starts by calling upon Costume Designer Suzanne Hopgood to put her men in suits with prep school badges worn on their coats and the women in modern dresses. They’re modern, but still mostly formal. Only those who are outside the realm of nobility discard the formality of suits for casual dress.

Blixt also directs her cast to move in more modern ways, affecting modern mannerisms and deliveries of speech. This brings the complicated cast of characters closer to the audience, making them more relatable and casting the spotlight on the political nature of the play. It’s a choice that is effective for this play, making it more accessible as a heavy history filled with narrative.

Jeromy Hopgood’s set is a simple one with a movable bench creating throne rooms, castles and private rooms with a quick move across the stage. A large set piece in the back warns of the decline of a realm while hanging stained glass windows evoke the religious mandate frequently referred to in the show.

“Richard II” is devoted to the details and this production commits to telling a historical tale in which a careless ruler must face the consequences of his actions and his disregard for the conventions of the time. It can get heavy at times, a likely reason it is so rarely done. But for fans of Shakespeare or of history, it is a rare opportunity to witness the struggle between forces of a kingdom as it must choose the type of rule it will have.