As my high school history teacher once drummed into my head, the only reason to study history is if it has something to say about contemporary times. The rule applies well to Shakespeare’s Richard II — the first history play that Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival has tackled in its 32 years of existence — a tale of malevolence. power and the uneasy transition of power.
So see it at Carlin Park’s Seabreeze Amphitheater through July 17, followed by a weekend at Royal Palm Beach’s Commons Park Amphitheater, and see if it doesn’t bring to mind today’s headlines.
Of course, the Festival has never been known for its subtlety, and while there is plenty to like in director Trent Stephens’ approach to the play, did he really need to costume his cast in increasingly modern garb for us to see the parallels between a play set in 1398 and a production that careens towards 2022? And did we need the inclusion of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” meant however ironically, to further clue us in to the point that the more things change, the more they stay the same? It’s a terrific song, but why not trust Shakespeare to express his intended themes?
Richard is a reluctant monarch, never comfortable wearing the crown he inherited as a young man. Over time, he gains an enemy and rival in his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who gathers an army in opposition to the king while Richard is off in Ireland waging war. When he returns to England, he finds the support of his countrymen has slipped away from him. So Richard deposes himself in favor of Bolingbroke (crowned as Henry IV, the first in the line of Lancasters), who promptly locks him away in a remote castle tower to go mad, stewing over his failed administration.
Even with a cast of only 11, achieved with considerable doubling and tripling of roles, PBSF runs into its usual lack of bench strength in the supporting roles. Fortunately, Stephens has a pair of classically adept performers in his two kings. Seth Trucks is royally, and aptly, immature as the young Richard, and is even better as his downfall progresses and he is left onstage alone to soliloquize over his lost power.
A more offbeat casting choice, but no less successful, is Courtney Poston as Henry Bolingbroke. It seems unlikely that director Stephens is trying to make a statement with the gender switch, other than his willingness to give the role to the most proficient actor, regardless of sex. Poston does indeed build in strength as Henry gains the crown, while also suggesting that the character will find ruling the realm a challenge. Poston is not the only actor whose role has been gender-bent. Thomas K. Prater is quite persuasive as Queen Isabel, while Maddie Fernandez falls short of that mark as Mobray, the Duke of Norfolk.
Credit director Stephens for starting off the evening with a choreographed “dumb show,” which foreshadows events of the play. He also does an admirable job of pruning the text down to the company’s target two hours, without losing any of the history’s key plot points or poetry. Daniel Gordon keeps his scenic design simple, focused on an imposing throne at center stage and a series of empty picture frames overhead, blowing in the wind. (Another homage to Dylan?)
Chances are the infrequently produced Richard II will be new to much of the audience. Although Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival’s presentation is not all it could be, give the company points for selecting the play and to the audience for venturing out into unfamiliar territory.
RICHARD II, Palm Beach Shakespeare Festival. Carlin Park Seabreeze Amphitheater, A1A and Indiantown Road, Jupiter, through July 17. Commons Park Amphitheater, 11600 Poinciana Blvd., Royal Palm Beach, July 21-24. Admission free, suggested donation $5 per person. 561-762-8552 or visit pbshakespeare.org.