The current production of William Shakespeare’s rarely produced history play “Richard II” at Luna Stage in West Orange hits you like a whirlwind, condensing the original work’s five acts into an action-packed 90 minutes.
Shakespeare, for instance, took his time leading up to the first major plot twist — Richard II’s order for rivals Bolingbroke and Mowbray to both be exiled — letting the two dukes air their grievances against each other at great length. But Zachary Elkind’s adaptation, which he directs himself (in its world premiere), jumps right into the heart of the matter. We get just a few moments of feverish arguing, so chaotic you can barely make out the words: We know there is a huge rift here, and that is enough. Richard II makes his decision, and off we go.
I wouldn’t recommend attending this production without knowing at least the basic story: Four actors play all the characters, so I think it would be hard to keep everything straight without some minimal background. Still, this “Richard II” doesn’t just do justice to Shakespeare’s poetry and his tale of political maneuvering by all-too-human royals (and the price that must be paid for their missteps), but presents it in an exciting new way. And you don’t have to work too hard to uncover the relevance of the play for today’s political landscape.
“If power is concentrated in one person, is the exercise of that power fundamentally unjust and arbitrary?” Elkind has said. “And if being in power makes a person unable to realize even their own humanity, how can anyone hope to be a ‘good’ king?”
Giuliana Carr plays Richard II, whose blithe arrogance has disastrous consequences. Nathan Darrow plays Richard’s cousin (his temperamental opposite and, ultimately, his foe), the gravely demeanored Henry Bolingbroke, destined to become Henry IV.
Gabby Policano plays the Duke of Aumerle, Richard’s confidante, while Darin F. Earl II plays the tragic John of Gaunt (Henry’s father) and the conflicted Duke of York (Aumerle’s father).
All the actors wear modern, far-less-than-regal clothes (the costume design is by Alyssa Korol). And all — even Carr — play multiple other characters as well, differentiating themselves with changes in speech, wardrobe, eye wear and physical presence.
At one point, an actor holds up another character’s eyeglasses to suggest that character’s presence, since the actor who had played that characters is playing someone else in the scene.
Elkind adds some other offbeat touches, such as having Richard’s friends Bushy, Bagot and Green (played by Policano, Earl and Darrow, respectively) take on the mannerisms of adolescent goofballs. There is no intermission, but the five acts are separated by short interludes of modern-sounding music, and the projection of the act’s number onto the stage itself.
Brightly colored flowers, piled together in a neat circle on the stage floor at the start of the play, are scattered by characters who don’t even seem to notice them as they move about, symbolizing the chaos those reckless rulers are bringing to England. But the flowers are later swept back into place, symbolizing the return to order that Richard’s downfall and Bolingbroke’s rise represents, as well as Richard’s own imprisonment.
Luna Stage is an intimate space and, for this show, audience members sit on all four sides of the stage, and actors sometimes venture into the aisles or even sit in untaken seats.
With its speed, its energy and its unconventional staging, this is a consistently engaging production — one that should be applauded by Shakespeare aficionados, but that also could serve as a good introductory Shakespeare experience for younger theater-goers.
Remaining performances of “Richard II” at Luna Stage in West Orange will take place Nov. 3 and 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 4-5 and 11-12 at 8 p.m.; and Nov. 6 and 13 at 3 p.m. Visit lunastage.org.
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