Cedar City • In the concluding moments of Utah Shakespeare Festival's austere and autumnal production of Shakespeare's "Richard II," director Henry Woronicz creates a striking image: Henry Bullingbrook, the new king, sits alone on the top step of Jo Winiarski's stark multilevel platform set, pinpointed in Jaymi Lee Smith's moody fading light. He stares soberly down on deposed Richard's draped dead body on a gurney below.
The last thing Bullingbrook needed was for Richard to be killed. In that moment, he realizes he has inherited the instability that undermined and ultimately destroyed Richard's reign. One cannot help thinking of a line from a later history play, "Henry IV, Part II": "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown."
Not that Richard didn't make all the wrong choices to cause his downfall. Woronicz captures the feeling of dissipation and degenerate excess that characterizes his court in the play's opening image, when Richard lounges self-indulgently, champagne glass in hand, amid his courtiers. His uncle, John of Gaunt, captures the feeling in the country when he says, "A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown. … Landlord of England art thou now, not king." And the Earl of Salisbury predicts ominously, "I see thy glory like a shooting star fall to the base earth from the firmament … witnessing storms to come, woe and unrest."
As Richard arrogantly antagonizes possible supporters and greedily appropriates money and resources to fight in Ireland, all he can eventually count on is his futile belief that a divinely anointed king cannot topple. In the face of Bullingbrook's strength, it isn't enough.
Nevertheless, Bullingbrook is a usurper. This production is set in the Edwardian era at the turn of the 20th century, and costume designer Bill Black dresses Bullingbrook and his followers in uniforms, which gives what happens the look and feel of a military coup.
The production features very strong performances. David Ivers mines every nuance from Richard's character, ranging from his boastful vanity and self-pity to the affection he has for his queen and the sensitivity of the self-knowledge he gains from his fall. Larry Bull is a stalwart, straightforward Bullingbrook, easily commanding every situation. Dan Kremer's John of Gaunt is eloquent and impassioned in his defense of his country. Dan Frezza's York is consistently torn by conflicting loyalties to family, king and country. Brian Vaughn's Earl of Northumberland is the steady, reliable voice of reason and authority behind Bullingbrook, and Matt Mueller creates an outspoken, conscientious Bishop of Carlisle. Melissa Graves deftly mixes loyalty and bewilderment as Richard's queen, but she needs to work on her voice; it's weak and difficult to hear. Matt Zambrano, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Christopher Ellis and Drew Shirley stand out in the large supporting cast.
Woronicz's direction is confident and assured, but he could easily have trimmed about 15 minutes from the production. The play is full of images of rising and falling, which works perfectly with Winiarski's set, and Smith's lighting emotionally isolates and highlights. Black's costumes are a symphony of black, gray and white, pierced by touches of regal red. Barry Funderburg's dramatic music gives the action sweep and scope.
In setting the play closer to our time and in his director's notes, Woronicz emphasizes the parallels to the volatility and uncertainty of today's politics. Perhaps "Richard II" is more of a cautionary tale than it first appears. In any event, this production is a strong link in USF's chain of Shakespeare's English history plays. Stay tuned for more.
Review: 'Richard II'
Utah Shakespeare Festival's exciting, dramatic production features strong performances and creates indelible stage pictures.
When • Reviewed on Sept. 21; in rotating repertory with two other productions Tuesdays through Saturdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 19.
Where • Randall Theatre, Utah Shakespeare Festival, 300 W. Center St., Cedar City.
Tickets • $31-$72 with discounts for groups, students and seniors; 800-PLAYTIX (752-9849) or www.bard.org.
Running time • Two hours and 45 minutes (including an intermission).