Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Most Shakespeare purists and theatre fans are aware that when his plays were first presented all of the roles were played by men due to the fact that women weren't allowed to appear on stage. Over the years, Shakespeare's plays are rarely performed the way audiences would have experienced them when they first premieredtime periods are frequently altered, settings changed, etc. So, having the roles reversed from how his plays were originally presented, with women now playing all of the parts, is a nice twist but one that also doesn't shortchange the power of Shakespeare's prose or the richness of the characters.
Richard II is the tale of the fall of King Richard II and the rise of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who would later be dubbed Henry IV. Richard is a poor manager of money and governmental matters and, after having exiled Henry for six years, he must face his cousin and an army of men he has gathered after Henry returns to claim the land that is his. As these two men battle for the crown, we witness how bad blood and family strife result in deception, banishment, imprisonment, and even murder.
The Southwest Shakespeare Company cast is superb. Betsy Mugavero beautifully depicts the wide emotional range of Richardfrom forceful and slightly funny at first to foolish, frustrated, and ultimately feeblewith expert focus. The audience never doubts the segues from one character trait to the next in her moving performance of a petulant yet passionate man. Mugavero's delivery of the "sad stories of the death of kings" monologue and her portrayal of Richard's downward spiral, when he realizes his fate, are handsomely done.
Allison Sell brings strength, focus, power, and no hint at all of uncertainty to the role of Henry Bolingbroke. Sell's depiction of Henry's steady confidence, through steely stares and poised yet rigid body language perfectly evoke how he never doubts his chances or his abilities in succeeding Richard. It's a solid and stunning portrayal of this practical and realistic man. Veronika Duerr is luminous in two roles, bringing a beautiful soulfulness to John of Gaunt, Henry's father, as well as the Earl of Northumberland. With stoic resilience we firmly understand from Duerr's strong portrayal why both characters have such strong devotion to those they love and to the causes they believe in.
The rest of the cast shine in supporting roles, including Breona Conrad who embodies the Duke of York, John's brother, and Richard's uncle with conviction, and Raquel McKenzie who is feisty yet also passionate as Richard's Queen. Also, Ryan L. Jenkins, Kim Stevenson Smith, and Christina McSheffrey provide solid support as characters who impact the plot.
Under Quinn Mattfeld's skilled direction, not only is this slightly abridged version fast paced, with scene transitions that are seamless, but the decision to stage the entire show downstage also provides a beautiful connection and intimacy to the characters so we can more easily understand their actions, thoughts and concerns. Mattfeld uses light from large, always-present candelabras and minimal set elements, reminiscent, he said in his pre-show speech, of how plays were presented in Shakespeare's Blackfriars Theatre in the early 1600s, to provide a sharp focus on the actors and language.
Emily Hasty's opulent costume designs are specific to the original time period of the play while also incorporating some more modern elements. However, there may be some confusion at first about whether someone is playing a male or female character, as the costumes of the period don't always help to signify gender. The lighting design by Stacey Walston instills the piece with beautiful shades and shadows, while Peter Bish's ominous sound effects and musical cues provide tension that perfectly underscores the drama in the play. The hair and make-up designs of Angela Kabasan Gonzalez help distinguish characters, especially those played by the same actress, and Chase Budden's scenic design and Beau Hackman's prop designs are simple but effective.
The relevance of the playin which political strife, power struggles, and uncertainty are on full displayto what is happening in current times, as many world leaders, especially in the U.S. and the U.K., seem to be facing an identity crisis about what each country stands for and what is in the best interests of a nation, makes it very topical. Southwest Shakespeare Company's Richard II is an elegant and highly accessible production. While the all-female cast may, at first, seem like gimmick or the latest way to make Shakespeare modern or different, it is never intrusive. Fairly quickly, I found I stopped focusing on the gender of the actors on stage and concentrated more on the motives, feelings and emotions of the characters they were playing. To me, that's a sign of a highly successful production.
Richard II runs through March 7, 2020, with performances at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, please visit swshakespeare.org or call 480-644-6500.
Director: Quinn Mattfeld
*Appearing Courtesy of Actors Equity Association