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Royal Pains: King Richard II and Power 

Bounced checks and balances

Wednesday, Aug 8 2007
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King Richard II was probably gay. He was born in 1367. Apparently there were gays even back then.

Richard had two wives and no children by either of them. For the king of England, that’s a bit telling, given the emphasis on lineage that goes with being royal. He also relished the arts, befriended Chaucer and collected fine objects. He so flinched at warmaking that he actually empathized with the cantankerous Irish, claiming to understand their objections to absentee English landlords (until he moved to invade Ireland late in his reign), and even refused to wage war with France. Today, some circles would call that “forward thinking.”

All this came in the face of stern objections by English barons who stood to profit from 14th-century war industries. For these reasons and more, Richard was described as not very kingly. He had Westminster Abbey beautified with a new ceiling and paid inordinate attention to his clothes. He not only used and probably waved a hanky, he invented the thing. I don’t mean to traffic in stereotypes, but when this is all put together, sometimes two plus two really does equal four.

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Among the men Richard is reputed to have had sexual affairs with is Robert de Vere, Ninth Earl of Oxford. Their contemporary Thomas Walsingham describes that friendship as “obscene, and not without a degree of improper intimacy.”

For medieval types, Richard’s unnerving antipathy toward killing people in foreign countries while ignoring family values at home didn’t go over well. At the end of his reign, people on the streets of London pelted him with garbage when his parade rode by. (That was the 14th-century equivalent of a public-opinion poll.) By this time, however, he had squandered the treasury, raised taxes, seized lands from nobles and leased them out to help make up the deficit. How much easier things would have been if he’d just started a war like all the other kings. Debt does strange things to people who aren’t producing much. A national debt makes things even stranger. This is a concept we’re familiar with in this country, and is among the reasons why Shakespeare’s King Richard II is slowly picking up relevance for us.

The Bard’s play about the later Richard, King Richard III, is comparatively well known because it stars a hunchbacked prince who has his little nephews murdered in the Tower of London, just so the swine can wear the crown. Of course, this makes for terrific, Gothic melodrama. But Richard II, crowned when he was 10, had no such villainous drive, which may partly explain why King Richard II is more ruminative and less frequently performed. It’s an awfully good play, however, written entirely in verse and packed with glorious, intricate arguments and contemporary resonances. More important than that, you can see it for free under the stars (or clouds) in a beguiling production in Barnsdall Art Park by the Independent Shakespeare Company.

He may have been forward-thinking, but Richard II was not particularly smart. (How would you like to be remembered for having invented the handkerchief?) He had an unfortunate habit as a teenager of relying too closely on the counsel of friends he was sleeping with, while fobbing off the advice of more worldly types in Parliament — even when the country was going to shit, which was much of the time. This led to an insurrection by Parliament, resulting in Richard’s confinement in the Tower (their version of censure, rationalized because the king was still a minor), until he got a better grip on reality and on the notion of checks and balances. This never happened. Throughout his life, England waited for Richard to grow up.

Things were better for a while after he came down from the garret — they threw him a lavish party upon his “coming of age” and return to the throne, and he was quite popular until former habits resurfaced. The trouble with Richard was that he really, really believed in the divine right of kings, which included the right to invent his own reality. Such inventions are neither persuasive nor helpful when the nation is sinking in debt.

Actor David Melville is uniquely engaging when portraying Shakespeare’s more reflective characters. His rendition of Hamlet at this same venue was like that of a Brighton Pier standup — his anger manifested itself more in bitter jokes than brooding. A smidgen of that mock-sarcastic amazement manifests itself in his Richard, along with a smidgen of swishiness. At the start of this production, the entire court sinks to its knees at the sight of his imperial, imperious arrival amid snare drums, banners and coats of arms. Melville’s window into the character’s soul lies in the world-weary arm gesture with which he permits them all to rise, accompanied by a small sigh. You can see he’s been at this a while, and it no longer amuses him.

Somebody killed the Duke of Gloucester, and the king has assembled the court to hear evidence. (Historically, the identity of the killer, and even whether Gloucester was murdered or not, remain open questions.) Feisty Bolingbroke (Freddy Douglas) accuses Mowbray (Daniel O’Meara). Challenges between the pair are issued and a duel proffered, but the king will have none of this blood lust. Instead, he banishes both of them from England. But this is no benign intervention. While Bolingbroke is abroad, his father (and the king’s uncle), John of Gaunt (director Joseph Culliton), dies. Gaunt was among the wealthiest landowners in England, and with Bolingbroke out of the way and unable to claim his inheritance, Richard seizes Gaunt’s estates (as he had so many others). Understandably perturbed, Bolingbroke returns from exile to lead a rebellion against Richard, ultimately leading to Bolingbroke’s coronation as King Henry IV.

King Richard II is like a warm-up for King Lear — the study of a fall from grace and its accompaniment by a king’s delusions of grandeur and eventual cognizance of those delusions and of his diminishing supporters. His most insightful speeches come in throes of despair. Unlike his Hamlet, Melville’s Richard eventually swerves toward an agony that’s more harrowing than sarcastic, under Culliton’s direction, which makes this production absorbingly complicated and moving. There’s more pathos than glee in the fall of this sparrow. (The play depicts his murder, though some historians believe he starved himself to death while imprisoned.)

Culliton’s staging is a windblown affair, lucid yet with varying degrees of skill among the players, but anchored by Melville’s Richard, Douglas’ robust Bolingbroke and Maro Parian’s 14th-century chic costumes. But when the house lights come up, Gaunt’s lament lingers as an allegory for the plight of our generations to come: “This land of such dear souls .?.?. Dear for her reputation through the world, Is now leased out.”

Nick Dear is a contemporary English playwright who had the gall to write a historical play about the French, and it’s not even a musical. Power, premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2003 and now receiving its U.S. premiere by Burbank’s Theatre Banshee, studies King Louis XIV (Steve Coombs) and how his design of Versailles was a consequence more of vanity and petty jealousy than inspiration or vision. Though Louis is the centerpiece because he’s so famous, the drama charts the fall of the wealthiest man in France, Nicolas Fouquet (Matt Foyer), who’s not only an avid lover of luxury, owner of estates, art collector and bird trainer, he’s been subsidizing the royal family for some time. As is deeply vexing to the new King Louis. As in Richard II, the royals have bucketfuls of entitlement filled with more snobbery than cash.

Power studies Louis’ envy and eventual destruction of Fouquet, goaded by a rival, bean-counting courtier named Colbert (the fine Jason Tendell), all high blood pressure and contemptuousness for those who find enjoyment in life beyond balancing the books. They’ll bring down Fouquet on dubiously supportable charges of petty corruption, rather like the way Putin brings down oligarchs who piss him off. Fouquet’s main curse is that he has style, which the king envies. At a party, Fouquet dresses as “the sun.” As Fouquet later sits languishing in prison, Louis anoints himself as “the sun king,” after designing Versailles from Fouquet’s own garden.

With much focus on court intrigue over Louis’ affair with his gay brother’s wife (Lesley Kirsten Smith) and a mistress (Andra Carlson), Power has the titillating soap-operatic elements of so many Masterpiece Theatre histories. David Pavao turns in a gleefully stereotypical performance as Louis’ prancing, fashion-obsessed brother. His appearance is actually a highlight, though he has as little to do dramatically as he does politically.

“But Louis,” he protests when the king asks for his help, “I can’t actually do anything.”

I wish the stenciled French Court walls of Arthur MacBride’s set had been even half as ornate as Laura Brody’s sumptuous costumes, though the outdoor murals on the walls’ flip sides provide a wondrously theatrical atmosphere. Amid a strong ensemble, Casey Kramer’s manipulating regent Queen Anne and Foyer’s Fouquet have a potency that gives McKerrin Kelly’s direction its drive. There’s a look of quiet desperation in Foyer’s eyes, as he starts to comprehend his plunge, which is strikingly similar to Melville’s Richard II. It’s that moment of illusion shattered — for those with the gumption to have presumed that their view from the top of the world would never end.

KING RICHARD II | Written by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by INDEPENDENT SHAKESPEARE COMPANY in BARNSDALL ART PARK, SOUTH LAWN, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd. | Through August 31 | (818) 710-6306

POWER | Written by NICK DEAR | Presented by THEATRE BANSHEE, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank | Through August 19 | (818) 846-5323

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