Los Angeles-based Independent Shakespeare Company offers an impressive amalgam of compelling history and haunting poetry in its simply staged perusal of “Richard II,” one of the Bard’s better-scripted but seldom-staged tragedies. Helmer Joseph Culliton ably guides an uneven but well-spoken ensemble through the thematic intricacies inherent in the descent of this foppish, vainglorious monarch who finally discovers his humanity while being stripped of his kingdom.
Eschewing lighting or sound designs, Culliton’s staging, performed on a minimalist set, makes good use of the outdoor Barnsdall park setting. Ensemble members enter from behind mounted onstage flats as well as from the rear of the audience seating area, giving the aud a sense of being caught up in these late 14th century royal doings. Not all the members of this large ensemble have a firm grasp of the scripter’s metered dialogue, but the Bard’s dramatic throughline is never lost. Abetting the proceedings are the colorful period costumes of Maro Parian.
In the title role, David Melville offers a tour de force portrayal of a flawed ruler, totally incapable of wielding political power, whose eventual sad reflections on his plight give this work its poetic beauty. Melville reveals the evolution of Richard’s soul with absolute clarity, at first exhibiting delicious comedic irreverence amid the ruler’s imperious lack of concern that his country is going bankrupt due to his spendthrift ways.
His portrayal becomes especially riveting near the end of the first act as Richard, returning from an inept attempt to invade Ireland, learns that all the lordly powers in England are lined up against him in favor of the rebel Bolingbroke (Freddy Douglas).
Melville’s Richard absorbs this information with body-wracking emotional shifts that incorporate denial, anger and acceptance. With a final sense of awe at the realization of his fate, he utters, “For God’s sake, let’s sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings.”
Melville is ably supported by helmer Culliton in the role of Richard’s ailing uncle, John of Gaunt, whose disappointment in Richard leads to an effective rendering of Shakespeare’s famous “sceptered isle” monologue.
Douglas offers a staunch portrait of John’s son, Bolingbroke, whose ill treatment by Richard turns him into an avenging warrior, eventually leading him to the throne of England as King Henry IV. And David Nathan Schwartz gives credence to the vacillation of Richard’s other uncle, the feeble Duke of York, who is torn between his allegiance to his nephew the king and his realization of the just grievances of Bolingbroke.
The Independent Shakespeare Company, which is proving to be one of the more viable ensembles of its kind in the nation, is performing “Richard II” in repertory with “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth.”