"Richard II," Shakespeare's history play about the fate of a king who talks a better game than he delivers, is given an entrancing stripped-down production at the Theatre @ Boston Court.
Jessica Kubzansky, the theater's co-artistic director, has adapted and directed what she's calling "R II," a deft distillation of the drama that begins after Richard has been taken prisoner. Performed by an adroit cast of three, Kubzansky's version proceeds in flashbacks that are staged with laser-like precision, each scene offering another angle on this political object lesson.
Object lessons, to be more accurate. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, a soft conservative with radical humanist leanings, the play is acutely aware of both the perils of irresponsible leadership and the hazards of bloody insurrection.
His "Richard II" is a study of a monarch ill-equipped for office in all respects but the pomp and circumstance that he foppishly can't get enough of. Still, this rash and reckless ruler, with a bit of a swish to his manner, has an arguably divine right to the throne. Deposing him will incur terrible costs, as Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses cycle never lets us forget.
Shakespeare's Richard II is often referred to as the poet-king and not uncommonly played as something of an effete cartoon dreamed up by Oscar Wilde. (Ralph Fiennes brought a Liberace flair to the role in the Almeida Theatre Company's production that came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2000.) A master of figurative language, he treats words as though they were precious curios, symbols to be admired rather than action plans to be put into effect.
To call his management style capricious would be an understatement: England is at the mercy of his whims, which are tolerated by dukes and earls until their property is threatened. A keen observer of the sociology of power, Shakespeare understood that aristocrats would put up with all manner of political eccentricity — just don't mess with their real estate.
Dressed in body-hugging all black, John Sloan plays Richard with youthful self-absorption in Kubzansky's adaptation. Locked in a squalid dungeon, he behaves as though he were a spoiled Ivy Leaguer sentenced to the loony bin for acting a little nutty. He's haunted by misdeeds and rattled by his miscalculations, but his expression nonetheless screams, "How can this be happening to me?"
As the play travels back in time, we discover just how this spoiled darling got into such hot water. Prancing around with a ruby- and emerald-encrusted gold crown and waving a priceless scepter as though it were the hot new accessory of the season, he can't understand why he's being called away from his playfellows to settle disputes between angry nobles, played by Jim Ortlieb and, the real discovery of this production, the stupendously agile Paige Lindsey White.
White is mesmerizing as the banished son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke, who returns with troops after his father's estate is ransacked to pay for the king's elective war against the Irish rebels. But she's just as adept in the role of Queen Isabel, and in fact could probably have performed "R II" as a solo show, though that would have prevented us from admiring Sloan's flamboyant Richard and Ortlieb's heartbroken John of Gaunt.
Given the number of characters in the play, the logistics of Kubzansky's production might seem dizzying, but the staging sorts out the action with remarkable fluidity. Names are announced unobtrusively and the acting is so nimble, with hardly an extraneous gesture, that it's easy to accept the way in which Ortlieb and White keep transforming from one figure to the next.
"R II" impresses most as a feat of ingenious stagecraft. The scenic design by Kaitlyn Pietras is stunningly spare, enlivened by a screen backdrop upon which lines from this most poetic of history plays are projected. Jenny Foldenauer's costumes and props help to flesh out a world that is a purely theatrical construction, neither medieval nor modern day but some dreamlike amalgam.
If the second half of the adaptation isn't quite as riveting as the first, it's probably because we have already experienced Richard in captivity and the deposition consequently doesn't have the same suspenseful build. All credit to Sloan, however, for rising in emotional majesty at the play's conclusion.
The production is remarkably concentrated, but some of the textual pruning diminishes the chorus of democratic voices that is perhaps the key to Shakespeare's political vision. The commoners, with their verdant metaphors for England's governance, are given short shrift.
There is no need whatsoever for a Shakespeare production to make a case for a play's continued relevance, but "Richard II" engages concerns that continue to bedevil us today. "R II" resists making modern parallels and focuses instead on the theatrically vibrant tale of a ruler who is never more kingly than when giving up his crown. On this score, it succeeds brilliantly.
Where: The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 13.
Contact: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes