No one is gathering round to “tell sad stories of the death of kings” in Yale Rep’s production of “Richard II.” There’s precious little mourning of the fall of England’s manchild monarch, played by Jeffrey Carlson with a defiant and flamboyant theatricality. It’s a strong and distancing take on the role, only softened by the increasingly lyrical language Shakespeare gives to the ruler as his kingdom slips away. But Carlson and helmer Evan Yionoulis keep the vainglorious royal unyielding to the end — and as brazenly eccentric as his bad haircut.
It’s a given that the now-grown boy-king, who has always believed he had an oh-so-divine right to rule, does not switch mindsets easily. But an unvaried character robs the royal of a degree of introspective understanding, even as his poetry grows increasingly rich. It also takes the heart, if not the humanity, out of an otherwise lackluster production that too often substitutes dullness for decorum.
After impressive turns on Broadway in Edward Albee’s “The Goat” and “Taboo,” Carlson has embraced the Bard, taking on Hamlet and Prince Hal at regionals and in England. The Juilliard-trained actor certainly understands the language and speaks it convincingly (not always the case elsewhere in this cast). And if Richard has anything in his favor it’s an intelligent understanding and love of language, one that deepens even as his political ineptitude brings his downfall.
But this grand interpretation of the capricious king, surrounded by sycophants and enamored with his own blessed right, is difficult to sustain and can be insufferable, especially when he’s luxuriating in his own self-pity. What makes matters worse is when it’s the sole excitement on stage.
There are some efficient perfs along the long way. Billy Eugene Jones does well as the lyrically challenged Bolingbroke, but the shifts in his character from wronged lord to calculating usurper are not dramatically defined. Alvin Epstein invests a seasoned stature as John of Gaunt (and brings a human touch of grounded reality as the Gardener). Caroline Stefanie Clay brings a mother’s mighty force to the role of Duchess of York. And Allen E. Read is a standout as the impassioned loyalist to the king, the Duke of Aumerle.
Designer Brenda Davis gives an otherwise rudimentary setting a ceremonial and historic touch by having entombed monarchs surrounding the playing spaces, high up to the rafters of this converted church-to-theater. Melissa E. Tim’s brocaded costumes, too, offer the right lushness for for this narcissistic king.
But the production never comes together into a confident whole and is rarely infused with imagination — other than the daring, unrepentant presentation of a foolish, unfit king who finds refuge but not wisdom in his words.