Richard II became King of England when he was 10, and in William Shakespeare’s account of the last year of his reign in 1399 before he was deposed, the 32-year-old Richard still has the mind of a kid. In the “Richard II” that Quintessence Theatre Group is producing, he is downright naïve.
A large part of that is because James-Patrick Davis, who plays Richard, has the look of a sweet lamb in increasing denial about a forthcoming slaughter. Davis, who’s worked in Washington, New York and a few years ago on Broadway, is about to be 30 but in “Richard II” he has an uncanny way of coming off as 17, with a curled lip, an innocent look and the occasional disposition of a high-school prankster.
It took me a while to buy into this version of Richard as child-king but in fact, the foundation for “Richard II” is about his entire reign even though the play itself covers the latter incidents that lead the future Henry IV to usurp Richard’s throne. And that reign was, historians tell us, kids play – Richard squandered public money, recklessly awarded flatterers and generally behaved like a spoiled child about 240 years before the phrase came into use.
Quintessence’s artistic director Alexander Burns stages “Richard II” to underscore the king’s juvenile temperament: Some lines that could be interpreted with a serious tone come off with an attitude that’s eye-rolling, and the king occasionally gads around the stage as if he’s not quite sure that his position is real. Adding to this childlike vision is Shakespeare himself, who wrote much of the text in rhyming couplets, sometimes a playful device; scholars believe the Bard wrote “Richard II” around the same time he was composing the sonnets, just before the 1600s, so it’s likely he was in a rhyming mind-set.
Burns could have edited the text down even further – the play clocks in at about three hours and begins to sag heavily toward the end of the first half. And at times, the production substitutes boisterousness for passion, giving it an artificial feel. But on the whole, it’s a successful effort for a Shakespearian history not frequently staged – you get a good feel for Richard II’s confounding position after he exiles two relatives and is later overwhelmed by one of them. Rebellion, conspiracy and revenge – three themes that keep Shakespeare’s work alive (and current) – all play out in “Richard II,” and very well on the stage of the Sedgwick Theater in Mount Airy.
Lee Cortopassi as Bolingbroke, who will become King Henry IV, is a forceful rival to an increasingly weak Richard II. Alan Brincks, Stephen Novelli and Paul Hebron are standouts in supporting roles, and the all-male cast includes Matt Tallman as a wonderfully insistent Duchess of York, defending her son (Sean Close) in a conspiracy charge before the usurping king. And then there’s Davis, whose Richard II – even at the end, in an attack staged well by fight director Ian Rose – gives us an entitled, youthful look at the ephemeral natures of power and life.
“Richard II” is running in repertory with “As You Like It,” both produced by Quintessence Theatre Group, at the Sedgwick Theater, Germantown Avenue near Durham Street. The runs of both have been extended. “Richard II’ runs through Nov. 16, and “As You Like It” through Nov. 14.