The weather is bouncing between spring and fall in New York, but the summer Shakespeare season begins with Sonnet Repertory Theatre and Matchbook Productions’ engaging and unique production of Richard II. Billed as “a tale told by Nineteenth Century [sic] artists railing against Imperialism,” the ensemble integrates four low-flying trapezes into the action and nature of the play, adding humor, movement and momentum, and unexpected but intensely satisfying emotional depth. Director Steven Cole Hughes explains the connection between Richard II and the narrative potential of the trapezes: “These two are uniquely suited because they are both so simply expressive…the low-flying trapeze can take a situation where ‘not much is happening’ and make it soar.” He observes that while Richard II isn’t as action-packed as some other Shakespeare plays, it has much to say, as the material and the medium connect on an emotional level.
Implanting this specific form of performance art also points to a certain aesthetic, and Hughes’ design team bolsters and defines the French sensibility of the show. Nathan Cohen, Matt Dallow, and Brent Rose create an evocative musical foundation—reminiscent of foreign films and small towns in Provence—that supports the production start to finish. Emily Lippolis outfits these players in long white undershirts, black and neutral pants, black suspenders, and a black vest for the king (with some flirty flouncy skirts for the women). Minimal props, including red sashes and rotating hats and eye-masks, help distinguish when actors switch roles, but the true characterization comes from the talented troupe. The agility and ease of the entire cast on the trapezes is astounding; no one looks awkward or inexperienced. Hughes keeps stretching the bounds of what can be done on the apparatuses, and how it fuels the story.
Unfortunately, the production gets off to a rocky start. In the first scene, Richard pronounces banishment for Bullingbrooke, but the emotional heartbeat starts too high and escalates too quickly, forcing Nappo to top a one-noted cage match. Nappo tries to keep the dramatic tensions high, but how can he when he’s backlit during the most important part of the scene? I don’t know if the theater has footlights, but perhaps a spot would be more effective to emphasize power and gravitas than a dark front-light. Kiebpoli Calnek as Bullingbrooke's father mumbles and slurs. I knew she was talking, but I couldn’t decipher what she was saying. Although it’s difficult to understand her verse, she is smoothly efficient on the vertical rope, whirling through the air five feet off the ground and making it look effortless. I could feel the character’s emotional arc through her movement.
Khris Lewin as Bullingbrooke really starts the show as he prepares for banishment and, at the suggestion of his father, sets off with a rousing chorus in his wake. Lewin’s commitment to his cause makes it exciting rather than hokey, and it’s hard not to follow in his charismatic footsteps. The entire production toes the line dividing incredible and cheesy, but it usually falls to the good side, although it would be very easy to have the entire show collapse under this overriding theme.
Lewin helps make French artists commenting on Imperialism plausible, but he’s not the only one who carries this production. Brent Rose brings calm strength and experience to his Northumberland, who really, really loves his future king. His son Percy (Daniel Loeser) is the perfect blend of arrogance and temper, with extra cockiness to boot. These rebels are alluring as young, brash, strapping pirates, and they sweep the audience into their usurpation of the throne. (They are also stripped to the waist, helping sell their cause to eager viewers.)
Nappo’s Richard has a spontaneous but emotionally rich consideration of the text, balancing the king’s thoughtful approach to his foolish decisions. Speaking his inner monologue, Nappo helps us get inside the mind of a man who loves to be king, but just isn’t very good at his job. Even as he swings around (unfortunately facing away from the audience on occasion due to the erratic spinning, and even flipping upside down), Vince Nappo as Richard holds his ground and makes sure his verse is understood.
The play is very machismo, as many histories tend to be, but the female actors bring just as much to the table. Eileen Little as the Queen projects sincerity and genuine compassion for her loving but absent husband; Danielle Slavick, specifically as the Duchess of York, hams it up quite well, making us laugh at her slightly nasal intonation as she pleads to Bullingbrooke. Physical comedy is also spot-on from all the actors, making a play mostly about dead guys laugh out loud funny. The entire production melds together under the adroit supervision of Hughes, and I think it is a fine way to begin a summer of Shakespeare.
Richard II runs May 7 – 24, 2010 at The Tank, 354 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036. Information can be found at http://www.sonnetrepertorytheatre.org.