by Hugh Hunter
“Richard II”, now running at Quintessence Theater in rotating repertory with “As You Like It,” is one of Shakespeare’s major history plays. It is a fabulous and gripping tale about the tragic fall of a medieval king.
Actor James-Patrick Davis is riveting in the star role. That is a hard trick to pull off because there is much in the medieval world that is foreign to us now, when people really did believe the king was God’s emissary, and civil war was the expression of God’s displeasure.
But even in such exotic circumstances we never doubt for a minute that Richard is a real person. He starts out as a cocky young ruler. Then pressed by the rebellion of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV), Richard comes to a shocking self-discovery: he is not an agent of the divine.
Richard’s defining moment comes in Act 3, scene 2. In the face of rebellion, his will to resist collapses, not from cowardice but from the sudden realization of his un-divine ordinariness. “…I live with bread like you, feel want, take grief, need friends…”
Young Richard had his flaws. He was complicit in the murder of his rival, Gloucester. He callously confiscates the estate of John of Gaunt (Stephen Novelli), which ignites the rebellion. He is aloof towards commoners and gaily imperious to everyone else. But none of this compares to the emerging disbelief that eats at his soul.
Director Alexander Burns does double duty as sound designer. Together with lighting designer Joseph Glodek, they make scene changes into dramatic events that create a great sense of anticipation.
Strong acting performances dominate the performance. Lee Cortopassi is magnificent as Bolingbroke, intense, patient and cunning. In some ways Bolingbroke resembles a modern politician. But there is a part of him that genuinely believes in divine right and a sense of foreboding haunts him after his usurpation of the crown.
Nor will this medieval world allow Bolingbroke to forget. The Duke of York (Paul Hebron) chastises him, saying he has no right to depose a rightful king. Cleric Carlisle (Ryan Walter) goes further, invokes the wrath of God and prophecies that England will drown in bloody civil war.
In defeat Richard begins to haunt Bolingbroke. The more impotent Richard becomes as a political player, the more gloriously his poetry soars. The one seems to induce the other, and with Davis’ superb delivery, Richard’s despairing prison scene soliloquy matches anything in Hamlet. “I have wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
In fact, Richard is a lot like Hamlet, and by the end he doubts everything. The strength of the Quintessence production is that it makes so believable the shock Richard feels over the collapse of his medieval belief system and conveys so feelingly his newfound, apocalyptic vision.
Quintessence Theater is located at 7137 Germantown Ave. in the old Sedgwick Theater. “Richard II” will run through Nov 16. Reservations available at 215-987-4450, ext 1.