The set isn’t finished. No costumes, no special lighting. Cables and portable fans litter the aisles. Actor John Sloan takes center stage and positions himself on a circular metal grid. Behind him and off to one side is a wooden throne mounted on a tiered platform; plain wooden risers flank either side of the stage.
At the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena, director Jessica Kubzansky, Sloan and fellow cast members Paige Lindsey White and James Ortlieb are rehearsing “R II,” Kubzansky’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” premiering Sept. 14.
Conceived as a three-actor play, “R II” begins in Act V: The deposed king is in prison, stripped of his crown and of his identity as a monarch divinely chosen to rule. The metallic grid that Sloan stands upon represents both Richard’s prison and Shakespeare’s “hollow crown” (“…for within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court….”). Lindsey White and Ortlieb are the imprisoned Richard’s thoughts.
“Richard is looking back, wondering, ‘how the hell did I get here,’” said Kubzansky, Boston Court’s co-artistic director. She found inspiration for the play’s one woman, two-man adaptation partly, she said, in lines that Richard speaks in his isolation: “My brain I'll prove the female to my soul, / My soul the father, and these two beget / A generation of still-breeding thoughts....”
With Sloan in the title role, Lindsey White and Ortleib become “a construct of his brain,” Kubzansky said. Lindsey White plays Actor B. Her multiple roles include usurper Henry Bolingbroke, Queen Isabel, the Duke of Aumerle and other characters. As Actor C, James Ortleib portrays, among others, John of Gaunt, the Duke of York, Thomas Mowbray and the Earl of Northumberland.
“The whole thing is about essence,” Kubzansky said, “so it’s basically actors and text.”
A self-proclaimed “Shakespeare freak,” Kubzansky considers the text of “Richard II” “some of the most beautiful in all of Shakespeare. It is just breathtaking and astonishing. And what I find incredibly moving about this play,” she said, “is the existential question at the heart of it. Richard says, ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off of an anointed king; / The breath of worldly men cannot depose / The deputy elected by the Lord.’
“And then he is deposed,” Kubzansky said, and what follows — Richard’s loss of belief in his own divinity — is “such a stunning idea about grappling with humanity.”
Kubzansky shaped her adaptation, more than a year in the making, around that idea. Purists beware: “I have cut things, conflated characters and occasionally reassigned things,” she said. And some characters “who are unimportant, yet very iconic,” don’t appear at all, although some of their text does.
Despite challenges that include determining how best to stage the action so that every audience member has a good sight line — and to ensure that no front-row audience member will be inadvertently skewered by an actor’s sword — Kubzansky said that she walks into each rehearsal “with such pure joy. This is the best poetry in the world,” she said, “with amazing actors and fascinating puzzles about how to do it.”
If she has at times regretted not having a full cast, “because of the storytelling that is communicated [by how] tertiary characters treat the main characters, it’s a delicious challenge figuring out how to do this.”
Still, after “R II” was programmed into the Boston Court season, Kubzansky said, “there were a couple times where I was like, oh, my God, I was insane to think I could do this. But it’s now in its fifth or sixth draft and it’s absolutely a living document.”
Kubzansky’s experience with Shakespeare runs deep, as does her reputation as one of Los Angeles’ most respected — and busiest — directors, with production credits at South Coast Repertory, the Geffen Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse and many other small and large theaters around the country. At Boston Court, Kubzansky’s work reflects the company’s pursuit of the unusual, inventive and offbeat. It includes numerous world premieres, among them Michael Elyanow’s “The Children” (“Medea”-inspired and wildly tweaked), Jordan Harrison’s dystopic “Futura,” and Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “Light,” a love triangle with Voltaire at its center.
“I do Shakespeare in many other places,” Kubzansky said, “but it’s rare that I do a Shakespeare play that feels re-envisioned enough to do at my own theater. Mostly because we try to do things here that you can’t see anywhere else, but also because I revere Shakespeare and I don’t think it needs re-envisioning. It just needs to be brilliantly illuminated. I hope I’ve done that.”What: “R II”
Where: Theatre @ Boston Court, Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 North Mentor Ave., Pasadena.
When: Opens Sept. 14. Runs 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Also 8 p.m. Oct. 2, Oct. 9. Ends Oct. 13.
Cost: $34 per ticket
More info: (626) 683-6883, bostoncourt.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.