Rise and fall

Naked Shakespeare's Richard II
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  May 20, 2009

richard main

For years now, the Naked Shakespeare Ensemble has brought its signature fare — stripped-down productions and ravishingly acute attention to the Bard's language — into a slew of non-traditional settings, including the Wine Bar on Wharf Street, SPACE Gallery, and the Sacred and Profane festival. With this season's full-length production of Richard II, the Ensemble grows even more adventurous in its choices of venues, with the run including shows at Empire Dine and Dance, the Inn on Peaks Island, Riverbank Park in Westbrook, and even last weekend's one-time production in the Great Hall of the Portland Museum of Art. Each show's locale has a distinct effect on its sounds, movement, and ethos, but the Ensemble's Richard has a characteristically solid base in its graceful and intelligent delivery of the play's poetry.

We open with King Richard (Paul Haley) on high in an elegant modern suit, mediating accusations of treason between two nobles: his cousin Bolingbrook (Randall Tuttle), later to be known as Henry IV, and the Duke of Mowbray (Eric Worthley). The two men challenge each other to a duel, but at the last minute, Richard intervenes and decides to exile them instead — Bolingbrook for six years, Mowbray forever. This will prove to be a very bad move on Richard's part (and in fact, Haley's build to the moment could use greater charge and tension): Bolingbrook is a popular figure and has allies at court; and his father John of Gaunt (Michael Howard), is also not pleased. Then, when Gaunt dies and Richard purloins Bolingbrook's inheritance, the shit really flies, and key nobles rally around Bolingbrook. As Henry rises to the throne, Richard is brought low, to heart-wrenchingly existential effect.

Though Richard II is infrequently performed, the falling monarch's monologues are among Shakespeare's most memorable and devastating. "For God's sake," goes his famous aching lament, "let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings." Haley's Richard, early on, is smug, peevish, and not all that likeable, which makes the sympathetic anguish of his downfall monologues all the more striking: We come to care about an imperfect man stripped of his identity and forced to confront what may or may not lie at his base core. "For you have but mistook me all this while," he continues. "I live with bread like you, feel want, taste grief, need friends: subjected thus, how can you say to me, I am a king?" Haley's delicacy and dexterity with these speeches make a connoisseur swoon, and the progression of his monologues, into ever more stark tenors of despair, is the bloodline of the play.

The rest of the Ensemble neatly enacts the treacherously shifting tectonics of the court. Tuttle's smarmy Bolingbrook is immediately apparent as the Machiavelli that he is, while Harlan Baker's conflicted Duke of York, another uncle of Richard, agonizes over his own alliance. Debbie Paley is piercing in her portrayal of the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, and Karen Ball flits with humor and a French accent as Richard's tempestuous queen Isabel. Special bravos go to Howard and Baker for the agility and sensitivity of their delivery. The deposition scenes, with their physical risings and fallings of men, accompanied by Denis Nye's dark and minimalist evocations on bass and keyboard, are arresting.

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