ARTS' 'Richard II' is intense


POSTED: Tuesday, July 14, 2009

All of Shakespeare's “;history plays”; were political works that he wrote with great care to tread carefully regarding the rulers of the day. The last of the Plantagenets — the royal family of England for three centuries — had been executed by Henry VIII years before Shakespeare's birth, but people of his time were as likely as those today to draw parallels between stories about historical characters on one hand and public figures on the other. The Plantagenets were long gone, but some of the issues raised by Henry Bolingbroke's overthrow of Richard II might have seemed uncomfortably topical in the last years of Tudor rule.

Richard, the lawful king of England, had been overthrown by his cousin, who then assumed the throne as Henry IV. Richard was not the first English king to be deposed, but he went much less willingly, and Henry Bolingbroke's claim to the throne was less secure.

Henry had the public on his side — nobles and commoners alike — when he returned from exile in 1399, and for good reason based on some of the things that took place during Richard's reign. However, as presented this week by the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival as the opener of its eighth season, “;Richard II”; is more about the tragedy of Richard's fall than a tale of wronged man's just vengeance.

That said, for those hardy enough to spend almost three hours seated on a folding chair watching theater in the round, director Harry Wong III's all-female production is intense and engaging entertainment.

Katherine Aumer-Ryan gives a powerful performance in the title role. In her beautifully nuanced performance we see a monarch so thoroughly imbued with the inalienable divine right of kings to reign unchallenged that he is blind to the forces rising against him.

Aumer-Ryan doesn't miss a beat as the doomed king. She plays Richard as serenely self-assured and almost frivolous at times in Act 1, then touches the heart as we watch Richard slowly, bitterly, wretchedly yield his power and royal accouterments to Henry — and then await his martyrdom.

Elizabeth Wolfe (Henry), seen last year in the title role of “;Henry V,”; again displays her talent and range playing a royal swashbuckler. In her performance, too, we see a king-to-be gaining in wisdom and maturity.

Around them is a talented cast of stage veterans and relative newcomers. Peggy Anne Siegmund is a commanding presence first as John of Gaunt and then the Duchess of York. Danielle Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak likewise stands out in two key roles, first as Mowbray and later as Richard's young queen, Isabella of Valois. Stephanie Kuroda (Aumerle), Michelle Hurtubise (Northumberland) and Amy Edwards (Duke of York) are worth watching in three other major roles.

AS WITH SOME of his other plays, Shakespeare takes some dramatic liberties. Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak sulks and pouts and cries with charming sweetness as Richard's loving young queen, but the real-life Queen Isabella was married to Richard when she was 6 and therefore was only 9 or 10 when he was deposed. Their parting may well have been as poignant as played by Aumer-Ryan and Vivarttas-Ahrnsbrak, but it would have been a bit different to watch a man of 33 bidding farewell to a wife of 9.

And, although it seems certain that Richard was the victim of foul play, the scene in which one of Henry's ambitious henchmen travels to Pontefract Castle and kills the deposed king is a product of the Bard's imagination. No record is known to exist documenting the cause of Richard's death.

However, Richard's murder is followed by a scene in which Henry repudiates the deed. Shakespeare and the people of England, circa 1600, were not ready to accept the killing of a deposed king. That would come later.




'Richard II'

        » Where: The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.

» When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, also at 3:30 p.m. Sunday


» Cost: $10 to $20


» Info: (800) 838-3006 or www.HawaiiShakes.org