Plays, they say, are never written about typical, average Tuesdays when nothing out of the ordinary happens. Plays—good ones, anyway—are written about days when big, remarkable things take place: turning points, major discoveries, tragedies, revolutions, new beginnings… that sort of thing. But you’d never know it by the opening scene of this Richard II, in which a bored, inexplicably queeny king hears a halfhearted dispute between two merely annoyed men as a stage full of dead faces look on. Missing every opportunity offered by the fire and import of the text, it looks more like a hearing for a parking ticket than the heightened scene Shakespeare wrote, full of heated accusations of treason, challenges to fight to the death, and urgings to put such passions to rest.
And so begins the opening night performance of this, the first production in The Porters of Hellgate’s third season of Shakespeare. It was an evening that offered much in the way of promise: their most recent undertaking (Love’s Labor’s Lost) was so enjoyable as to render one predisposed toward all future productions. The press release states their commitment to “approach this beautiful and lesser-done history’s fiery poetry with a focus on clarity of intention and meaning.” In the darkly lit theatre, the pre-show mood is set for tragedy by appropriately ominous music that suggests the gathering of dark clouds. In the program, the company takes the time to provide not only a synopsis and a family tree, but also clarification of important historical points. A dramatically illuminated gold throne dominates an upstage platform, looming over a painted stone stage floor. I even looked forward to seeing how director Charles Pasternak would use the set’s side platforms, which, ignoring set design convention, run flush along the side walls, facing inward rather than angled toward the audience.
But from the moment the cast takes the stage (poorly draped in yards and yards of variously-colored cheap velour), there are problems. Pasternak’s decision to place the throne upstage center means that anyone who comes before the king either has his back to the audience or his back to the king. It also means that the throne appears in every scene, whether we’re in a field, a dungeon, a garden or just outside the castle walls. Richard’s three pals, Bagot, Bushy and Green (for reasons I can’t begin to divine) are played as mincing fairies, and the three actors (Matt Calloway, Liam Toner and Daniel Armas) make sure to alert us right away to this questionable choice, with limp wrists and giggles and swishy walks, all in lieu of any stakes in the proceedings. And then there’s the strange choice to place one ensemble member in a bad wig in an attempt to disguise her gender, creating more distraction than help.
Thomas Bigley, in the title role, shows flashes of understanding, then, all too quickly, reverts back to a performance that’s a lot of behavior with very few supporting ideas—a criticism that can be applied to the whole company with its overabundance of eyebrow raising, unmotivated laughter and bad limping. Bigley’s is a pissy, sulky Richard, at times more evocative of The Rocky Horror Show’s Dr. Frank N. Furter than of a king of England. By the time the text calls for self-pity, he hasn’t earned it, and we’re hard-pressed to care.
The costumes, meanwhile, provide little help. The majority (made from the aforementioned cheap velour) look like some sort of sloppy futuristic monks’ robes. Others are shiny polyester, reminiscent of those Halloween costumes we used to buy at Woolworth's back when there was a Woolworth's. The challenge of the presumably small budget might have been better met by doing the play in modern dress than by using bits of grey sweater to suggest chain mail.
But more disappointing than all of these flaws is the fact that very little of what happens in the two-and-a-half-hour journey seems particularly important to any of the characters, which is surprising in a play in which so many of them face such towering issues as banishment, betrayal and death. It’s an evening full of bad choices, low stakes and a shocking apparent misunderstanding of the story. Upon hearing that Gaunt has fallen ill and is close to death, Richard and his pals chuckle like someone has shared some titillating gossip, then drink wine at his bedside as if attending a party on a yacht. Gaunt himself (Jamey Hecht) doesn’t seem particularly bothered by dying either. Gus Krieger’s mumbling Bolingbroke rolls his eyes in boredom as the Duchess of York (Taylor Fisher, in one of the few convincing performances) pleads for her son’s life. And when he tells his cohorts that if his demands aren’t met, he’ll “…lay the summer’s dust with show’rs of blood/Rain’d from the wounds of slaughtered Englishmen,” they smirk like they’re off to TP a competing frat house. The throwing down and picking up of gages (gauntlets), of which there is much in Richard II, plays with all the drama of shooting spitballs. Dan Sykes as Scroop breaks the news of York’s defection with the casual, frustrated delivery of Matthew Perry in a "Friends" episode, then goes on to do an unforgivable “put-upon servant” comic schtick during a very serious scene between the Yorks. Shakespeare can be counted on to indicate where comic relief is called for. It wasn’t.
These big, heavy moments—and, in fact, the entire plot—are treated with such a strangely blasé touch as to bleed the play bloodless, absent of any red meat—barely a snack, when the table has been set for a meal. Here, they talk of death like it’s merely inconvenient, betrayal like it’s just sort of a bummer, and banishment like someone has taken their seats on a plane.
It’s hard to understand how this happened. One would expect far better from this company, with its love of the Bard and its dedication to clearly communicating text and story. And it is a terribly unpleasant task to write such a complete pan for such a lovely company. But it appears that, with Richard II, the Porters have neglected to do their usual homework. And when, in the final moments of the play, Richard, alone in prison, says, “I wasted time…,” one is reluctantly inclined to agree.
The Porters of Hellsgate’s Richard II runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3:30pm through May 31 at the Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood. Box Office: (310) 497-2884.