by Barbara Waldinger
How is it possible for a local theatre, performing in a school with a cast of seventeen, including a small group of experienced actors working alongside a number of young students, to mount a credible, fully-staged and costumed production of Shakespeare’s Richard II, a play written entirely in verse?
That is what Walking the dog Theater, celebrating its twenty-first anniversary this year, has happily achieved at Hawthorne Valley School Hall, under the direction of Melania Levitsky, with yeoman assistance from composer/music director Gotthard Killian, set designer Serena Hoffman and costumer Elizabeth Frishkoff (and assistants).
Written in 1595, the play takes place during the reign of Richard II (1377-99), an incompetent, self-centered, corrupt king, eventually deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, whose property Richard seized after banishing him. Wallowing in self-pity as Bolingbroke amasses forces against him, Richard willingly hands over his crown. Why should we be interested in this weak king? Because, as Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom suggests, Richard is a remarkable poet–a “master of metaphor”–whose lyrical passages become more eloquent as his position as God’s anointed ruler slips away. Upon learning that Bolingbroke has been murdering the king’s supporters, Richard speaks these famous lines:
“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” (III.ii. 155-6)
Fortunately, David Anderson, Executive Artistic Director and a founder of Walking the dog Theater, plays the title character. His portrayal goes a long way towards explaining why Bloom thinks Richard would have been better off as an actor than a king. Anderson masterfully captures Richard’s many moods: his cruelty, insecurity and the manic-depression that propels him from wanting to defend his title, which he has held since childhood, to the realization that he is nothing.
John-Scott Legg as Henry Bolingbroke is a worthy opponent. As a man of action he presents a strong contrast to Richard, who is all talk. Though he claims to have returned from banishment only to retrieve his stolen property, it is clear that Bolingbroke won’t stop until he is seated on the throne. Six years after the play was first performed at the Globe Theatre, it was revived by followers of the Earl of Essex on the eve of his 1601 rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I, who, realizing their intention, retorted: “I am Richard II, know ye not that?”
Two other professionals in the WTD cast offering powerful performances are TAMIR as the Duke of York, uncle to the king (the casting throughout is gender-fluid), and Carla Lewis, doubling as the Duchess of Gloucester and Earl of Northumberland. Anderson, Legg, TAMIR and Lewis are the anchors of this production.
Levitsky’s direction is superb. Her large cast is well-rehearsed and choreographed, as they perform on a series of platforms in the center of a long, narrow room with the audience on two sides. Every scene contains courtiers, soldiers and/or members of the king’s retinue, populating the stage as if it were truly a royal court. Even Levitsky can be seen onstage in a cameo appearance.
Hoffman’s set serves both the room and the production well. Two smaller platforms on either end of the room, accessible by steps, are connected by a lower, longer platform in the middle. The platform farthest from the audience contains a structure that houses musicians, with a gauzy curtain in front, above which is a balcony from which the king can look down on his subjects.
Killian, the composer and music director, is a wonderful cellist, providing music between scenes and during the dance that concludes the performance. He plays several instruments in the course of the evening, including the recorder, chimes, drums and a cymbal. When a horn was called for, heralding a momentous occasion, an enthusiastic cast member stepped in. Unfortunately he was not up to the task, resulting in repeatedly jarring interruptions.
Frishkoff’s Elizabethan costumes are sumptuous, plentiful, and colorful while Sean Madey’s lighting design adds to the formal style of the production.
Given the different levels of the performers, Levitsky faced huge challenges in staging Richard II. Would it have been more effective if the cast were all accomplished actors? Undoubtedly. But these hard-working players rose to the occasion and successfully brought home this rarely-performed play with its glorious language and intriguing political theme.
RICHARD II runs at the Hawthorne Valley School Hall on July 19-21, 25-28 at 7:30 pm, and July 22 and 29 at 2:00 pm. Tickets may be purchased online at www.wtdtheater.org or call 518-392-3399.
Walking the dog Theater presents RICHARD II by William Shakespeare. Directed by Melania Levitsky. Cast: David Anderson (Richard II), James Luse (John of Gaunt, Bishop of Carlisle), John-Scott Legg (Henry Bolingbroke), Scott Mendelsohn (Mowbray, Glendower, Exton), Carla Lewis (Duchess of Gloucester, Northumberland), James Kuhn (Duke of Aumerle), William Sanderson (Lord Marshall), Savannah Shulkin/Solomon Bergquist (Lord Bagot, others), Sam Ferrone (Lord Bushy, others), TAMIR (Duke of York), Eliaz Hassel (York’s Attendant), Yuan-rong Liao Anderson (Queen), Hsiu Hsin Chuang (Lady in Waiting), Simon Frishkoff (Lord Ross, Gardener), Sean Madey (Connie Chatwell), Norm Peebles (Albie Short). Musicians: Gotthard Killian, Simon Frishkoff, James Kuhn; Music Composer/Director: Gotthard Killian; Costumes: Elizabeth Frishkoff and others; Set Design: Serena Hoffman; Lighting: Sean Madey; Stage Manager: Serena Hoffman.
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes, including intermission. Hawthorne Valley School Hall, 330 County Route 21 C, Ghent, NY., from July 19; closing July 29.