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‘Richard II’ Is Poetry In Motion At Shakespeare & Company

Rocco Sisto, center, as "Richard II" with Wolfe Coleman as Aumerle. (Kevin Sprague)

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LENOX, Mass. – If the pen really were mightier than the sword then Richard II would be remembered as a great king of England and “Richard II” would be one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays.

As it is, when Shakespeare and Company decided to take it on – and take it on they do brilliantly – it was only given a couple of weeks at the Tina Packer Playhouse, so you only have till July 21 to see it.

Indeed, “Richard II” is not the most accessible Shakespeare play. There’s little comedic relief except for the wit of the dialogue; the historicism is confusing; and the ineffectual Richard doesn’t share in the bloodlust that makes the Bard’s other monarchs more memorable.

But what language. Richard is Shakespeare’s most poetic king and Rocco Sisto is a most poetic actor. Even when a line gets a little garbled it is such a majestic performance that Sisto could command your attention if he were merely reciting the king’s speeches. He’s hardly alone, though, as the entire company displays what makes it so special among Shakespeare troupes – the ability to make Shakespeare’s language shine through with the contemporaneousness of a Mamet or Kushner.

Sisto gives Richard the sense that he’s never quite comfortable in his regal skin, a kind of Shakespearean Jimmy Carter trying to appease the Democratic left on the one hand and the Republicans on the other and not finding favor with much of anyone. Shakespeare’s contemporaries found a readier analogy – Queen Elizabeth, who even compared herself to Richard.

Rocco Sisto as Richard II hands the crown, wryly, to Bolingbroke in "Richard II." (Kevin Sprague)

Rocco Sisto as Richard II hands the crown, wryly, to Bolingbroke in “Richard II.” (Kevin Sprague)

Director Timothy Douglas and dramaturge Katharine Goodland give the adaptation a more religious spin on events, and indeed there’s much talk in the play about the divine right of kings and the risk of damnation Henry takes upon himself for usurping the throne. But the questions that arise here are more contemporary, having to do with politicians cloaking themselves in God’s mantle or, as Goodland points out in the program notes, with events in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. Conversely, the production made me particularly grateful that except for the religious right and politicians who love them, the US is blessed to have separation of church and state.

The one element that didn’t ring true was the use of gospel and other contemporary music. It’s altogether too beautiful for the ugly religiosity depicted onstage. Perhaps Douglas is trying to show the positive side of religion that  resonated for Richard and the other characters, but it didn’t work for me.

Just about everything else does, though. Sisto’s performance, which puts Richard II in the company of a Lear or Hamlet, isn’t the only superb performance. Tom O’Keefe as Bolingbroke and Jonathan Croy as his father are almost frighteningly insightful, but everyone onstage inhabits his or her character. The set design is minimal, but the world created by Douglas and the cast doesn’t need much embellishment.

It’s Richard’s world. And ours. When those worlds conjoin you know you’re witnessing a great Shakespeare production.

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