Rehearsing for "Richard II"

I am forever foisting my loves on the Perspicacious Reader of the Ithaca Times. But, if I could be indulged one more … that would be Shakespeare.

And, here in Ithaca, we are fortunate indeed to have the Ithaca Shakespeare Company staging extraordinary performances of the Bard’s works throughout the year. (Their summer performances at the Cornell Plantations are not to be missed.)

And this frigid February they are staging Richard II at the beautifully renovated Hanger Theatre.

My personal favorites of Shakespeare’s oeuvre are the plays with fantasy elements like A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest. I’m not as familiar with the historical plays (which, with the exception of Richard III, don’t seem to show up in 21st century performance as much as the big monster plays like Hamlet or Macbeth or Romeo & Juliet and so on.)

But, apparently, in Shakespeare’s era, the historical plays were among his most popular.

In an opening phone conversation with the Ithaca Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director, Stephen Ponton (who is directing Richard II), he told me: “Shakespeare wrote a whole sequence of history plays that form a continuous narrative. Richard II starts it off. And we’re going to do the whole sequence.” (This will be a two-year cycle running from February 2015 to November 2016.)

The idea of the story cycle in a nutshell is: Richard is a bad king. Someone comes along and knocks him off the throne. And then another king comes along and knocks him off, and it starts this whole sequence (ending somewhere with Richard III and Henry VIII.)

(What it reminds me of is gunfighters in the Old West: the reigning gunfighter is deposed by the new young Turk, who discovers that every aspiring gunfighter in the West now wants to depose him and on and on…)

•     •     •

I visited the Hangar Theatre on a couple of hellishly cold February nights and spent some time with the cast and crew of Richard II as they rehearsed (in a new, renovated, rather large, black box theatre with blood red seats).

It was a tremendous amount of fun watching the actors work, building the performances. Director Steve Ponton guided them, blocking out their movements in the large space, suggesting physical movements, and even facial expressions.

The crew worked on the (big, spectacular) sets, actors were costumed, sword fights were fine-tuned.

All of which was fascinating to watch.

I brought my faithful little Olympus digital voice recorder and managed to record some conversations with the cast and crew.

I managed to get five minutes of Director Ponton’s time, and he told me: “This was designed to be part of a commemoration of the Shakespeare anniversaries that are happening over the next couple of years. 2014 was the 450th anniversary of his birth, and 2016 is the 400th anniversary of his death. So we wanted to do something special to mark these occasions. And doing this whole sequence of plays was the idea we had.”

I said, “I didn’t realize that they were all a continuous cycle of plays.”

“They are very much connected,” Ponton said. “Some characters show up in multiple plays … so there’s continuity from one play to another.”

I said, “The actor Michael Donato told me you coined the phrase ‘The Original Game of Thrones’ …”

Ponton laughed and said, “And that’s really what it is. If you’re familiar with the plays and you’re familiar with Game of Thrones and stories like that, it’s very clear that these history plays of Shakespeare were a major inspiration for those types of modern works.”

I added, “ I think Michael was saying that in the era when they were originally staged in Shakespeare’s time it would be as if you were doing plays about the Kennedy family or the Bush family or something…”

“Exactly,” Ponton said. “These were famous people and fairly recent history for Shakespeare’s audience. One of the problems we have doing them today is that Shakespeare’s audience was very familiar with the situations and the background and the relationships between the characters and so on, and our modern audience is not. 

“So we actually have a short introduction to the production that introduces the characters visually and explains who they are … a sort of prologue as part of the production.”

“Is there anything you really want to tell the audience?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Ponton said. “These are my favorite of all of Shakespeare’s plays. I think they are absolutely fantastic plays …

“I think a lot of people are afraid of them because they’re not familiar with them … they haven’t seen them staged or read them in school. If they have encountered them, they’re confusing because there are a lot of characters …

“I just want to tell people—don’t worry about that—these are exciting, engaging, entertaining plays, and we will make sure you understand what’s happening …

And … when you put them all together, when you get the whole arc, it’s like an epic series of five novels. You get the full scope of the story being told, and it’s really phenomenal…

“And it’s exciting to be able to do them …”

One of the real pleasures of hanging out at rehearsals was talking to the cast and crew … in some cases people I’d met before … in others, people I was meeting anew …

I had met the actor Michael Donato last summer when he played the ghost of Hamlet’s dad in the ISC’s production of Hamlet at the Cornell Plantations. In Richard II he plays the Duke of Gloucester, the incoming King Henry who will depose Richard. 

Donato spoke of Steve Ponton’s desire that the same actors could return to work through the entire five play cycle. 

He said, “His inclination would be to have continuation of the characters, so that people who came for the first, second, and later shows will have that sense of familiarity and continuity … but it can’t be guaranteed. Life is … what it is.”

I laughed.

And Donato said, “Men plan. God laughs. Right? But that’s the hope.”

Speaking of the cycle of plays he said, “What I found is that they are terrifically interesting plays in that they have complex human emotion, but they’re also based on real events. These are real stories of the way England’s history unfolded. They’re dramatized of course—it’s controversial how realistic they are—but they make for terrific drama. They were the drama mini-series of their day … 

“And I’ve read that Henry IV was Shakespeare’s most popular play in his lifetime. So these were not considered dry stuff.”

He continued, “The story of this particular play is the event that launched The War of the Roses … where the old order of the divine right of kings and the idea that God selected his messenger on Earth to sit on the throne got usurped by Henry saying, ‘I’m gonna pay lip service to that idea—but it’s really might makes right. And that led to a series of other people thinking, ‘Well, you know what—I’ve got enough might to be the King of England also.’ And the country was in turmoil for a long, long, time …”

The Ithaca Times film critic Bryan VanCampen is performing the role of the Bishop of Carlyle in Richard II. (When he’s not doing stand-up comedy or producing films with puppets.)

He described his character as “Richard’s right hand man, his religious man”, adding, “I’m on Team-Richard.” 

Explaining where they were at in the production, he said, “We rehearsed it at Fall Creek Studios … a considerably smaller space … and this is a big, three-sided venue, so there’s a lot of adjustment that has to go on. Most of the emotional or story-telling work is done—now we’re just figuring out how to stage it …”

He said, “Steve has been giving us emotional adjustments, but it’s really sort of secondary to being sensitive that you might not be in the right spot—‘Maybe over here would be better so everybody can see you …’”

“That’s the great thing about being well directed,” VanCampen said, “I just feel like I’m a happy chess piece.

And I met a new crewmember, Emily Howes, a young woman from Ithaca who studied theatre at Middlesex University in London. She is working on Richard II as a costume person (and stood in playing Richard for two or three weeks until John Keese arrived from California).

We talked at length of Shakespeare, and she said, “He just really got life.”

She told me that Richard II is her favorite Shakespeare play and that Richard is her favorite Shakespearean character.

She elaborated, “He’s a deeply human character. And in some ways he fits the profile of a tragic hero … but in a lot of ways he doesn’t. King Lear is the definition of a perfect classic tragic hero … he brought his downfall on himself …

“Richard took the crown at ten … and he actually was a pretty good king. But as he got older he didn’t know how to deal with people.”

“Oh,” I said. “The Bubble Thing. What we’d now call “being in a bubble”.”

And Howes said, “He just didn’t understand. He didn’t really have friends in the way normal people have friends. He was always surrounded by deceit and lies and court intrigue …”

She said, “What I love about the play is it goes in these waves. There are points where you go, ‘He’s a horrible king, why would anybody ever support him?’ and then there are points were you do really feel sorry for him …

“He thinks he’s doing what’s right. He’s trying to do right by his kingdom. 

And he also believed in the divine right of kings … that he’s God’s appointed minister. He believed he was meant to be king and was going to be king for his entire life

“He’s a very complex character. Yes, he brings the downfall on himself like any classic tragic hero … but then there are times where he’s very aware … and tries very hard … and you feel very bad for him …

“There’s points where you look at him and go, ‘You’re ridiculous.’ But he’s also the most poetic king … he only speaks in verse. He’s beautiful … his reign was actually known for being a very poetic and art-filled reign … and that comes across …

“He’s very sensitive as a king … which is a bit odd in the histories … they’re often a lot more bloody. And this particular play doesn’t have a fight until the very, very end, the last act…and that’s very fitting of Richard …

“Richard himself doesn’t fight … he lets go of things very easily. And at the very end … at the very last scene these people come to kill him, and he finally stands up and says, ‘No!’ and he fights. And I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to …

“And it’s really beautiful…”

•     •     •

Well. To wrap up here …

Having watched the rehearsals, I can attest that Richard II is a riveting play. 

The cast is uniformly terrific. And I should make special note of the two actors in the two pivotal roles.

John Keese is extraordinary as Richard (nicely evoking the otherworldly quality of someone who has been a king since he was ten—raised in a proverbial bubble).

And Michael Donato is equally outstanding as the incoming King Henry who wrests Richards crown from him (with, by turns, great vigor, anger, confusion and humanity).

And I think if the Reader loves Shakespeare as much as moi, this will be a rich theatrical experience—and the gateway to a whole cycle of plays to come in the next two years of this 450th anniversary Shakespeare celebration. •

Richard II opens at the Hanger Theatre, 801 Taughannock Blvd., Ithaca, N.Y. on Friday Feb. 13. For performance dates and tickets visit: www.ithacashakespeare.org

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