Theater @ Boston Court's program to its production of R II — what might otherwise be called William Shakespeare's Richard II — makes a point of not referring to the dramatist's work as a play but rather as a text. This is almost as telling as the announcement, in that same program, that the production employing this text has been "conceived, adapted and directed" by Jessica Kubzansky.
There are a couple of ways to approach a classic. One is simply to perform the play, leaving it alone and intact, trusting that it's good and clear enough for an audience to fathom its meaning. Using this approach, a director is supposed to give us the play and stay out of the way. This can be done with or without a fancy set or sound design. What matters most is the play, which is, as somebody once said, "the thing."
The other, no less worthy approach is to use the play as a springboard for a point-of-view upon the play. When a play becomes a text, we might infer that its barrage of syntax and speeches, and the thoughts they convey, are mere occupants of a hotel, along with the design elements. All components are created equal, and the words don't necessarily get the best room, with the balcony by the pool.
This latter approach infuriates classicists, but when it works, as it does in Kubzansky's ever-so-efficient, three-actor spin on Richard II, it guides us toward an angle upon the play seldom investigated.
It would seem ironic that Kubzansky's production casts its resonant beam of insight upon the pointlessness of language, given that the play is written with ruminative and beautiful arias, which convey so eloquently the reflections by England's deposed king (performed here by John Sloan).
Yet the larger irony is that this same insight about the murkiness of language lies in the text itself. Even more than King Lear, Richard II makes reference after reference to fair-weather "flatterers" doling out hollow compliments to the liege at court. The task, then, in politics as in the plays that reflect them, is for kings and audiences to discern when language actually means something, and when it doesn't.
That question lies at the heart of Kubzansky's production. Kaitlyn Pietras' stark set design includes a couple of platforms — when the king is up, he's up, and when he's down, he's down. During the scene in which Richard contemplates yielding his crown to his usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (Paige Lindsey White), Sloan takes three harrowing steps from an upper platform to the stage floor, where he is forced from his divinely ordained upper station to join the rest of humanity. The humiliation he feels is wrenching, largely because he knows full well that Bolingbroke's flatteries and gracious words, which come with the "truce" he offers, are all lies.
More to the point are the prison bars in Pietras' set, representing the confines within the Tower of London in which Richard was imprisoned shortly after he yielded his crown. This production is set entirely within that prison, from which Richard head-trips upon the meaning of his downfall. On one side of the stage, a few of the bars descend from the ceiling at an angle, without touching the floor. On the other side, they rise from the floor without touching the ceiling. The remaining bars are slide-projected columns consisting of letters crashing into each other in lunatic assemblies. This is an asylum where words have slammed into the Tower's unforgiving concrete and been left contorted.
This essence is not Kubzansky's reckless invention. It lies within, in one of Richard's speeches, about how thoughts are bred, leading inexorably to clashing words and madness. Richard explains that while he's alone in prison, his thoughts continually battle each other. "No thought is contented," he says. "The better sort, as thoughts of things divine, are intermix'd with scruples and do set the word itself against the word."
One can imagine how Samuel Beckett might have used Richard II's broodings as a basis for his title character in Krapp's Last Tape, a man addicted to and imprisoned by words he once recorded on reel-to-reel tape, which now, as the constructs of his memory, form pillars of his universe.
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Kubzansky's production gets to the quagmire of language, and the way it intersects with thoughts and with power, by stripping the play down to the three actors who play all the roles, by removing its ornamentation and pageantry, and throwing a high-voltage illumination onto the words. From there, the characters and the audience wade together through the same marsh, trying to fathom when words have meaning, and when they don't.
Sloan plays Richard II singularly. White and Jim Ortlieb capably tackle all the other roles. Sloan contains a preppy daffiness and smug countenance, which yields to bewilderment as to why the landowning gentry would be so upset when he seizes their property to fund his war in Ireland. Silly boy, he presumed his divine right to be king would allow him to rise above his constituents' resentments, even in a hate-fueled world.
This gorgeous production shows the dignity he tries to muster upon his descent from power. He becomes far more gracious than any who surround him, as his thoughts, and the words that convey them, give beautiful expression to his plight, yet also tumble and crash into shards.
R II | Text by William Shakespeare | Conceived and directed by Jessica Kubzansky | Theater @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; Wed., Oct. 9, 8 p.m.; through Oct. 13 | (626) 683-6883 | bostoncourt.com