'Richard II' sees pride and peril in politics at Shakespeare & Company
LEN0X -- Timothy Douglas, who is staging Shakespeare & Company's new production of "Richard II," confides that Richard is the Bard's role that he is most drawn to, and that he always has wanted to play.
"What I know about myself, and other actors, is that we tend to gravitate toward roles -- or they gravitate toward us," mused Douglas, a longtime company actor, teacher and director (2012, Oswald, "King Lear," Trinculo, "The Tempest").
"And while most of my drama school mates had their sights set on exploring Hamlet's mommy-and-daddy angst, I was far more interested in embodying Richard II's fascination with balancing of the mortal and the spiritual," Douglas explained.
"It is this king's innate sense of diplomacy, by way of compelling use of rhetoric -- versus his dis-ease with the warring nature of his predecessors -- that deeply stirred my acting juices and continues to resonate with the chronic, low-level ‘outsider' angst I live with as one of the very few African-American directors working in the mainstream American Theatre," added Douglas, whose directorial credits include "Blue/ Orange," Joe Penhall's sardonic comedy about race, mental illness and 21st-century British life, presented during the 2007 season.
"Richard II" will have a special limited-run engagement, with the initial preview Friday evening at 7:30 in the Tina Packer Playhouse and regular performances July12-17.
Douglas spoke one afternoon last week in the lobby of the Elayne Bernstein Theatre complex during a rehearsal break with his Richard, the three-time OBIE Award winner Rocco Sisto, and Tom O'Keefe (2010, "The Taster"), who portrays Henry Bolingbroke, the gentleman Richard banishes. Bolingbroke becomes an enemy and key in the King's eventual demise.
In scrutinizing the play, Douglas said he keeps discovering "political intrigue that keeps bubbling up to the surface because of this idea of shifting rulers. Everyone involved suddenly consciously, or unconsciously, steps out with the best way of doing things -- ‘Here is my idea,' each says. And the more that happens the more parallels I keep making with my perception of what's happening between Obama and the Congress."
Yet the president and congress don't figure in the production, Douglas cautioned. "It's just the most immediate reaction to the dynamic of the king and his nobles and lords who seem hell-bent on making sure he doesn't succeed so they can come into power" -- an obvious coincidental situation Douglas said he could not fail to notice.
Douglas finds the play's most compelling aspect in its religious implications -- Richard, who ascended to the throne at age 10, holds a deep belief that the crown was bestowed on him by a higher power, and the extremists among family, lords and others around him whip up religious frenzy, seeing in their deeds supreme righteousness.
Douglas has given the play a contemporary feeling, not only in the costumes of Herin Kaputkin, but in the environment as well.
"We're making our production within a 12,000-member, modern-day Christian church -- they're called ‘mega-churches' -- with an enormous congregation of people doing things that the top can't possibly know about, founded in the most spiritually-based authentic drive to honor God.
"And when you have that many people involved and the more dogmatic it gets, there's bound to be confusion about what ‘The Word' is," he said. "So I found those parallels pretty much exact to the dynamic and flow and intrigue that happens in ‘Richard II.'"
O'Keefe, as Bolingbroke, cannot avoid the sense of being a king-in-waiting -- actually the succeeding monarch, Henry IV -- can rationalize his feelings: "The way I've been thinking about it, is his whole thought is that he'd be a good king, and the way things are, he believes he'd be the right king for England, while Richard is failing in his duties.
"You know, at this time, Richard does not have an heir, so at the beginning of the play my father -- John of Gaunt -- becomes king, and then it goes to me. So it's always been a part of that mentality for him."
Sisto, pondering his role, said "Richard goes from being at the pinnacle of his power to having nothing. And as this happens to him, he discovers something about himself. The thing that struck me about the character is his journey toward wisdom and grace.
Douglas' production of "Richard II" is the company's first in its 26 years, and the first of Shakespeare's second Tetraology ("Richard II," "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2" and "Henry V") and the company's first History Cycle, which covers the period known as "The Wars of the Roses," all promised in subsequent seasons.
Asked what Douglas, a pioneer in this significant history cycle, would want carried away from "Richard II," he paused thoughtfully:
"A more discerning sense of self," he said, and smiled.
If you go ...
What: WIlliam Shakespeare's Richard II, directed by Timothy Douglas, featuring three-time OBIE award winner and founding company member Rocco Sisto as Richard and Tom O'Keefe as Henry Bolingbroke.
Where: Tina Packer Playhouse, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Opening Friday 7:30 p.m., running through July 21.
Admission: $15- $50
Information: (413) 637-3353 www.shakespeare.org,