Review: NSF & Lipscomb's Provocative Take on RICHARD II

By: Apr. 16, 2017

Carrie Brewer's fiery portrayal of the man who would ultimately become King Henry IV is certain to resonate with audiences for the compelling production of William Shakespeare's Richard II - onstage at Shamblin Theatre through April 23 in a joint production from Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Lipscomb University Theatre - especially in contrast to Caroline Amos' highly theatrical portrayal of the eponymous king whose indecision and lack of personal gravitas results in his ill-fated destiny.

Directed by Sean Martin and featuring an all-female cast, this production of Richard II, a rarely performed Shakesperean history play (it is, in fact, the first part of the tetralogy referred to by academics as the "Henriad"), is compelling and engaging primarily due to that casting conceit which allows audiences the unique opportunity to see an ensemble of intensely focused women bring new life and vitality to the seldom-seen play. And while Brewer and Amos' performances are the highlights of the production, Martin ensures that even the smallest roles are given their due thanks in large part to the commitment of every member of the ensemble.

Andy Bleiler's beautiful set design gives the actors the perfect arena in which to tell their story, transforming the Shamblin Theatre stage into the likes of which we haven't before seen, while June Kingsbury's eye-popping costumes clothe the actors to grand effect that is made all the more impressive by Anne L. Willingham's gorgeous lighting design that ideally illuminates all of the events in the diffident king's final two years of life.

Such artistic collaborations have been a part of theater since Thespis first stepped onto the stage and there is little wonder why new and rapt attention is paid anytime a director chooses to cast a show from a fresh perspective. What separates this production from others of similar ilk is the knowledge that the younger members of the ensemble, each of them a student of Lipscomb University's burgeoning theater department, are given the tremendous opportunity of working side-by-side with actors like Denice Hicks, Wesley Paine, Evelyn O'Neal Brush, Beki Baker (who heads the department) and Terry Occhiogrosso, whose experience and collective resume boasts an impressive treasury of stage roles.

In fact, the awe with which one views the entire ensemble of women is staggering, lending a sense of relevance to the proceedings, elevating the tale of a brief period of time in English history to a story that bristles with intensity and becomes far more accessible in these contemporary times.

Martin explains his approach to the project and the reasoning behind his choices in an informative director's note included in the production's playbill. "In almost every production I have seen, there's been a problem. Richard is primarily played as 'effeminate,' perhaps in an effort to invoke a sense of weakness," Martin writes. "...if everyone is female no one can be effeminate. Richard is on equal footing with everyone else, and we finally see his real journey."

Written originally in five acts, this new production of Richard II is condensed to a two-act, two-hour treatment that ensures its audience's mind has scant time to wander, keeping those actors on task and ensuring an easy to comprehend tale of intrigue, both of a personal and political nature, that transpires, lending credence to the idea that an open, honest and frank discussion of issues could possibly lead to some unexpected answers.

Brewer's determined and ambitious - though thoroughly loyal - Henry Bolingbroke provides an ideal counterpoint to the feckless and easily swayed Richard, commanding the stage with an authority that rivets her audience to her masterly performance. Amos, as Richard, exudes a sense of youthful vigor to be certain, yet any suggestion of royal authority seems fleeting given the king's lack of seriousness. Clearly, Amos draws the most challenging acting assignment among Martin's company of actors and she succeeds mightily in the process of telling the tale. Amos' Richard is a stunning combination of 21st century slacker and hipster set in relief against the play's 14th century time period.

Brush's all too brief moments on stage in Act One - her Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, is capriciously banished from the kingdom for life, thanks to one of Richard's harebrained schemes - nonetheless creates a memorable character whose presence is noteworthy. Hicks, the NSF artistic director, plays the avuncular Duke of York with an engaging sense of family loyalty that is supplanted only a sense of duty to the crown, while Paine's John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, is impressively outspoken and dramatically realized.

Occhiogrosso is impressive as the Duchess of Gloucester and as a perfectly unctuous gardener, while Baker imbues the Earl of Northumberland with a certain rakish blend of forcefulness and recognition of the reality of her actions.

Among the cast of younger actors, Emily Meinerding's regal bearing (as Richard II's Queen) makes her an ideal choice for the role, while Kaylea Frezza's impeccably rendered portrayal of Henry Percie is especially notable. Bekah Stogner, Merrie Shearer and Lauren Yawn acquit themselves admirably as the trio of Bagot, Bushie and Green, while the remainder of the Lipscomb student contingent (including Katie Chance, Mary Elizabeth Roberts, Jacqueline Smoak, Brooklyn Thompson, Victoria Thompson and Katie Woytach) show much promise, not only for their own theatrical futures, but as evidence of the tremendous growth of Lipscomb's academic theater program.

Richard II. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Sean Martin. Produced by Beki Baker and Robert Marigza. Presented by Nashville Shakespeare Festival and Lipscomb University Theatre, at the Shamblin Theatre, Nashville. Through April 23. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

photos by Kenn Stilger

About the show: The Nashville Shakespeare Festival continues its 2017 season with Richard II, a co-production with Lipscomb University, which will run from Thursday, April 13, through Sunday, April 23. The rarely-produced play features an all-female cast and will be performed at Lipscomb University's Shamblin Theatre.

"We are thrilled to work with Lipscomb University on this production of Richard II at the intimate Shamblin Theatre," said Denice Hicks, executive artistic director of the Nashville Shakespeare Festival. "Director Sean Martin has a clear vision, and the all-female cast is going to heighten the theatricality of the play, allowing the audience to focus on the intriguing story and the magnificent language. Working with local professionals will offer the Lipscomb students a practicum experience that is invaluable."

Richard II is William Shakespeare's historic tale of a vain king and the powers that commandeer him. Sean Martin, a London-trained, relative newcomer to Nashville and adjunct professor at Lipscomb, directs the performance, which features seven local professional actresses and nine Lipscomb students.

"We've had a relationship with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival for several years and this co-production of Richard II formalizes the relationship further," said Lipscomb theatre department chair Beki Baker, who served as the NSF education director before coming to Lipscomb full-time. "Lipscomb students will have the opportunity to work alongside a true professional company, and it will also give Lipscomb's female-heavy department an opportunity to get more of its students on stage."

Spring Shakespeare performances of Richard II are open to the public and run Thursday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturday matinee performances at 2:30 p.m. and a Sunday performance on April 23 at 2:30 p.m. School matinees are available by contacting and tickets are $8. Tickets can be purchased online at or at the door. Lipscomb University's Shamblin Theatre is located at One University Park Drive in Nashville.