“Richard II” usually plays second fiddle to the more dynamic “Richard III,” which features one of literature’s most fascinatingly grotesque villains; also, though comparisons are odious, it’s a better play.
But I am happy to report that “Richard II,” when it’s favored with a fine cast, and especially a charismatic lead, offers a delicious evening of theatre, with great lines and achingly human characters. That is the case here.
And I love to be reminded of two things: that Shakespeare has a sly sense of humor which can take you delightfully by surprise; and that he loves actors and has an incredible perception of what they can wring from a line or a scene—when they’re good.
“Richard II” has been called a tragedy, but it is really more of a chronicle which features one long abdication as its arc and through-line, with a deferred and dainty murder to finally end the proceedings.
Richard II (Lee Osorio) is the king of England; he degrees that Bolingbroke (Maurice Ralston) and Mowbray (Peter Hardy) settle a disputed matter (Bolingbroke has accused Mowbray of murder) in trial by combat; then Richard decides that no, banishment for both would be better. While Bolingbrook is away, his father dies and Richard foolishly seizes the Duke of Lancaster’s (Bolingbrook’s father, also called John of Gaunt, played by J. Tony Brown) estates to raise money to fight Ireland.
Richard II really has no business being the king of anything; he likes the attention, the robes, and the flattery, but Shakespeare makes it clear that that Richard is really a metaphysical poet; and as his kingship wanes, his poetry gets even better. The last three acts of the play depend almost wholly on the freshness and vigor of Richard’s language. Bolingbroke, much more politically savvy and cunning as the usurper he becomes, is really quite unlikable and rather a bore.
But not Richard. “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” No one in this play but Richard could have said that. Or “I have been studying how I may compare this prison where I live unto the world…I cannot do it.” Or near the end: “I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Lee Osorio more than makes the most of these lines: In what can only be called a breakout performance, he owns the stage and makes Richard II funny, touching, vulnerable, fey, and powerful. Mr. Osorio’s expressive face is magnetic; occasionally his eyes moisten with emotion. His Richard may be self-centered and childish at times, but there are moments when all human experience seems to show on his face. He is unforgettable.
Director Drew Reeves has assembled a fine cast. They make one of Shakespeare’s so-called “lesser” plays seem very important. Some standouts, in addition to those I’ve mentioned, are Heidi Cline McKerley (who gives us touches of her formidable Volumnia from “Coriolanus,” also directed by Mr. Reeves); Al Stilo, Amee Vyas, Sean Kelley, Vinnie Mascola, Tamil Periasamy, and quite a few others.
You probably won’t get many chances to see a live production of “Richard II.” I strongly suggest you pick this one.
For tickets and information, visit shakespearetavern.com.