Review of Richard II
By William Shakespeare
Directed by David Abrams
For tickets / schedule :
Birdbath Theatres
Key Tea / Open Secret
921 C St, San Rafael, CA
Tickets: $24, Student/Senior $20 (or donation as can afford)

RUN: February 1-18, 2018
Extended through February 25

RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(February 9, 2018)

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

King Richard II (David Abrams) abdicates to Henry Bolingbroke (Winona Wagner).

The reign of Richard II is perplexing to historians; he gained the throne at a young age, shaping the court into a peaceful sanctuary for the arts, patronizing literature, fashion, and architecture. He encouraged the use of English as a primary language, inspiring writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer. On the other hand, his actions seem abrupt and tyrannical in a fragile gathering of noble houses and tenuous loyalty from the peasants, who went into open revolt under his rule. Shakespeare considers the king through a biased lens of the Tudor dynasty, eager to paint Henry Bolingbroke (future King Henry IV) in a friendly light, rather than Richard II, the rightful ruler.

History plays have the potential to be confusing, with so many dukes and earls plotting against each other, often changing sides. If you are unfamiliar with the story, it is helpful to quickly glance over the life of Richard II before attending, despite the liberties taken with recorded history. The power plays between families can be fascinating to observe, and Shakespeare’s tumbling verse is executed to perfection by this cast, with clear elocution.

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

The Earl of Northumberland (Rob Garcia) rants against the king.

Key Tea / Open Secret is an eclectic cafe and bookshop in downtown San Rafael, with a casual, New Age environment. Costume designs by Wyatt Dunkerly reflect the setting; he observed that Renaissance styles have “similar lines” to attire seen at burning man. Director David Abrams explained the purpose of mingling eras in the costuming. “We decided to play with the similarities of shape and differences in material to give a nod to the past and present while setting the play in a neither here nor there place and time. We felt that setting the play in this alternate universe might serve the audience in letting go of where and when this is happening to listen to what is said.”

Although the play is rarely performed, it is filled with well-known passages, such as “grace me no grace” and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England” which are placed back into context. Abrams crafts a naïve ruler, out of touch with his subjects, and self-absorbed until grief forces compassion from him. In a clever directing choice, a love affair is extrapolated between Richard and the Duke of Aumerle (Jesse Lumb), which adds depth to the young man’s decisions with regards to the king.

Birdbath Theatres - Richard II

The Duke of York (Melanie Bandera-Hess) worries for the future of his house.

Melanie Bandera-Hess is dynamic as the Duke of York, an aging general forced to support Bolingbroke, for whom he has little admiration. Leon Goertzen charges onto the field as Thomas Mowbray, swiftly transforming into the troubled Bishop of Carlisle, mincing Bushy, and a hilarious Duchess of York. Winona Wagner’s noble Bolingbroke is charismatic, and her gentle Queen brings the royal gardeners to tears. The ensemble is able to carry the shuffling of characters, although Genevieve Schaad, a newcomer to theater, is still working on delivery and comfort with her roles.

Richard II flows with Shakespeare’s agile grace, emphasizing the elements of fire and water, referenced in Birdbath’s playbill cover. This exquisite production of a difficult history play has a unique, intimate setting and sensational cast. The political intrigue may not be for everyone, but the underlying motivations of loyalty, friendship, and love are universal.