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Review: Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ‘RII’

Brilliant reimagining of ‘Richard II’ is more than just a clever history lesson

Left to right: Paige Lindsey White, M.L. Roberts and Mike Ryan in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s new production of the Shakespeare adaptation ‘RII.’ PHOTO: RR JONES

Three bold actors bathed in brooding light and soundwork take charge of the outdoor stage in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s ingenious production of RII, a compressed adaptation by Jessica Kubzansky of Shakespeare’s King Richard the Second. Given the circumstances this year, SCS wisely selected a showcase for a small cast, three actors playing eight characters. The effect is by turns brilliant and surprising. Hearing Shakespeare explore the power of the English language makes RII a mesmerizing experience. The drama unfolds through the recollections of Richard (the adroit lead actor M.L. Roberts) as the former king steps back and forth in time, from his adventures as monarch to his ignoble end in the Tower of London.

In a nutshell: Richard has played fast and loose with his citizens’ lands and fortunes. Various noblemen—notably cousin Henry Bolingbroke—plan his overthrow in this prequel to Shakespeare’s Henry trilogy. The issues of revolt and treason against a rightful leader resonate hugely in our present day. The lean adaptation lasers in on the duplicity of the monarch and those plotting to throw him in prison—which is where the play opens (at roughly Act Five of the original).

Playing the part of King Richard throughout, Roberts is exceptional, vocally eloquent and physically nimble, changing back and forth from king to meditating prisoner. Shakespeare’s Richard unleashes a torrent of spoken arias crafted almost entirely in dazzling rhyming couplets. His musings, reminiscent of Hamlet’s, as to how he ended up betrayed and without identity are illustrated in clever flashbacks. The clash between the young, pragmatic Bolingbroke (played by the award-winning Paige Lindsey White) and the dynastic monarch drives this drama. SCS Artistic Director Mike Ryan is the third actor powering the eclectic roles of cousins, henchmen, boytoy, bishops, and traitorous noblemen. As Richard’s dying uncle John of Gaunt, Ryan articulates epic soliloquies and metaphors of England as an unparalleled world power: “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

The actors move fluidly in and out of their various parts, bodying forth all the intrigue, allegiance, and plotting that will launch the Hundred Years War. Thanks to intelligent direction by Melissa Rain Anderson, we are never in any doubt as to who’s who—although I advise theatergoers to read over the program notes before the action begins. The set is smart enough to serve as royal dungeon and royal throne room, depending upon the costuming of the moment. And I do mean moment, since there are times when Ryan must begin a speech wearing the red robe of a cardinal, and end the same speech as an attending duke, solely by doffing the robe and hiding it under his arm. Roberts meanders back in time to Richard’s heyday by donning his kingly cape and sparkling crown. The removal of those trappings places him back in prison. And back and forth. Stage magic.

Fine acting and inspired light and soundwork keep the various flashbacks moving swiftly, interweaving the doomed Richard and his chequered past into a shimmering organism. The compelling music design by Rody Ortega brings us huge crowds applauding Bolingbroke and vast armies fighting to overthrow Richard. Kent Dorsey’s light design has never been better. What keeps RII from being simply an elegant history lesson is Roberts’ interpretation of Richard as both corrupt ruler and sympathetic victim of the forces of revolution. Is power always ultimately corrupt? Can a coup be justified by the will of the people? These issues are spun through Shakespeare’s unparalleled language—as sobering now as it was when the first Queen Elizabeth was in the audience.

RII is worth its weight in dramatic gold. Skillful acting, pliant adaptation, and the exciting stagecraft we’ve come to expect of Santa Cruz Shakespeare. Remember, due to Covid restrictions there are far fewer seats available this season, so get your tickets now!

Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s production of ‘RII,’ starring M.L. Roberts, Paige Lindsey White and Mike Ryan; directed by Melissa Rain Anderson; written by Jessica Kubzansky; and adapted from Shakepeare’s ‘King Richard II.’ Runs through August 29 at the Audrey Stanley Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz. Go to santacruzshakespeare.org for a complete calendar of performances, and for tickets.

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