Rocco Sisto as King Richard II with Johnny Lee Davenport in the background in a scene from Shakespeare & Company’s production of this rarely-seen
Rocco Sisto as King Richard II with Johnny Lee Davenport in the background in a scene from Shakespeare & Company’s production of this rarely-seen history play. (Photo courtesy Shakespeare & Company / Kevin Sprague)

LENOX -- For a play about political passions -- power, betrayal, rebellion, corruption, hubris -- "King Richard II" always has struck me as a singularly dispassionate, humorless, emotionally sterile play. There is very little in director Timothy Douglas' modern-dress "Richard II" at Shakespeare & Company's Tina Packer Playhouse to shake that notion loose.

This production launches Shakespeare & Company's History Cycle, tracing the War of the Roses over this season and the following four into the company's 40th anniversary season in 2017. The play chronicles the downfall of a monarch, Richard II (played with stentorian authority by Rocco Sisto), who rules, he asserts, by Divine Right, God's will and authority, and who, within that ideological framework, sorely abuses his power and, in the process, exiles two fierce political opponents, one of whom, Bolingbroke, returns as the leader of an armed insurrection that succeeds in forcing Richard off the throne. Richard surrenders his crown in public to Bolingbroke, who assumes power as King Henry IV. Richard subsequently is assassinated in his Tower of London cell by a loyal supporter of the new king in the belief that this is what Henry wants.

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Douglas draws on his African-American heritage for the production's contemporary sacred music and establishing, visually through costuming and movement. That infusion, unfortunately, proves more intrusive and jarring than illuminating and revealing.

Among the casualties of Douglas' dark-flanneled-suit approach is the assassination of Richard, who is executed by handgun at a distance of some feet rather than in close-at-hand ritualistic slaying by knife or sword (at the performance I attended the assassin's gun wouldn't go
off so the stage manager alertly cued up a recorded gun shot, making an already ludicrous situation very nearly laughable).

More fundamental is the production's facility for draining this talky, cerebral play of what little emotional resonance it has. With the notable exceptions of Jonathan Croy's doomed Gaunt, Tom O'Keefe's calculatedly plain-spoken Bolingbroke and Walton Wilson's honorable, fiery Duke of York, this "Richard II" is little more than a hollow exercise in rhetoric and oratory. There is not much here that is worth caring about, intellectually or emotionally. Even Sisto, who commands the stage not only by virtue of his physical size but by the resonant authority of his voice -- a truly magnificent instrument -- doesn't break free of rhetorical formality. Sisto does break through late in the play when Richard, faced with the realization that he is about to lose everything, tries to salvage his dignity. He meets his fate with a blend of acceptance, bewilderment, waspish anger, petulance and childlike naivete as he expresses his hope that the newly crowned king will simply let him pass into humble obscurity in some unassuming country village. Sisto delivers this speech with childlike simplicity and purity. But despite his consummate technical skill, this is, at best, a lukewarm moment in a production that struggles, unsuccessfully, to breathe life into a disengaging, essentially moribund play.