Review: Brave Spirits Opens its Epic History Rep with a Strong 'Richard II'

By: Jan. 06, 2020
Review: Brave Spirits Opens its Epic History Rep with a Strong 'Richard II'

By now, it has likely occurred to most of you that history bites-it takes a piece out of you every time you pick up the paper or scroll through your news feed; it trails you to work and back, it won't even let you drink your coffee in peace.

Small wonder, then, that one of D.C.'s finer classical companies, Brave Spirits, has embarked on a two-year repertory of William Shakespeare's history plays. For the next four months, Washington theatre-goers will be able to commune in their frustration at current events, and find a crew of talented soul-mates for our journey. The first four plays of their cycle will be introduced one by one, from January to March, at Alexandria's Lab at Convergence space. So now you know; it's happening, it is a happening, and it's well worth the trek off of I-395 to see 'em.

Leading off this ambitious project is Charlene V. Smith's razor-sharp production of "Richard II," the king whose troubled reign was brought to an abrupt end by a revolt of his nobles, led by the exiled Henry Bolingbroke (soon to become Henry IV). Richard's greed, his lust for foreign wars-bankrolled by the seizure of the estates of his peers-led to push-back of a deadly kind. His downfall was swift, and from our point of view it was a matter of "good riddance" - but Shakespeare has a knack for creating sympathetic characters out of even the most pathetic crooks. He leaves us sympathizing with Richard, against our better judgment, and thinking long and hard about what drives people to ultimately suicidal acts.

From the git-go, audiences are confronted with the bloody nature of the power plays Shakespeare dramatizes here. The still-bleeding body of the Duke of Gloucester is wheeled out for all to see, as Richard II mediates a dispute between two hot-headed dukes, each of whom accuses the other of high treason. (Gloucester's murder, of course, will be merely the first of many).

Director Smith has assembled a cast that is assured in its understanding of Shakespeare's language; more importantly, she has nurtured some of the most creative, nuanced readings of the Bard's famous speeches I have ever heard. All too often-and even on the exalted professional stages downtown-we are subjected to actors who fall back on a fake musicality, or who limit their character's vast range of thoughts to a single emotion, played out with mind-numbing consistency. Shakespeare's genius consists in giving us living, thinking human beings, whose emotions are constantly in flux-that is what makes his plays worth watching, and his characters so compelling to watch.

Two examples, for starters: Gary DuBreuil's Richard is a fascinating study, a young monarch whose petulance and thirst for blood is tempered by his self-deprecating sense of humor. Shakespeare gives DuBreuil numerous opportunities to draw the audience to his side, and he succeeds in generating far more sympathy for Richard's plight than the historical figure deserved. Meanwhile as John of Gaunt, Richard II's uncle (and former Regent), Tom Howley stops the show with his moving, dying elegy for England. Howley begins with a smile and a gleam in his eye, enjoys the steady stream of metaphors the Bard provides him, before breaking down in grief at the thought of what Richard has done to a kingdom Gaunt fought hard to protect. Howley's return, in Act 2, as the Bishop of Carlisle is equally arresting in its emotion and depth.

Smith also makes a point of foregrounding the powerful women of Richard's court, led by Molly E. Thomas' blistering rage as the Duchess of Gloucester. Caroline Johnson's turn as Queen Isabel is memorable, in part because of the balance between dignity and vulnerability she has to project; the insertion of a conversation in French between her and her attendants is a subtle reminder of the strong blood ties English and French royalty had at this time, in the middle of the brutal Hundred Years' War.

For comic relief, you can't do much better than Lisa Hill-Corley and Zach Brewster-Geisz squaring off as the Duchess and Duke of York. The panic and pleadings that ensue, when they discover their son Edward, the Duke of Aumerle, has been plotting against the (newly-crowned) King Henry IV are worth the price of admission alone. As Aumerle, Duane Richards pulls off the contrast between this courtier's brutality and comic vulnerability, with ease.

In the "preview of coming attractions" department, John Stange's turn as the usurper Henry Bolingbroke (aka, Henry IV) is measured, with malice implied. His first nemesis, Thomas Mowbray, is played effectively Ian Blackwell Rogers-but keep an eye on Joshua Williams as Harry Percy (aka, Hotspur), whose ambitions and passion are on low simmer here, but will very likely blow the roof off as the company shifts to their staging of "Henry The Fourth."

Megan Holden's modular, multi-level set serves quite effectively, offering multiple platforms for the characters to plead their several cases before us, and Jason Aufdem-Brinke's lights create a wide variety of atmospheres for the quickly-paced action here. Composer and Music Director Jordan Friend guides the actors as they provide their own musical accompaniment, chanting in Latin to herald the arrival of kings and playing instrumental passages as needed; this is especially effective during the scene when the deposed Richard contemplates his doom from a prison cell.

Ambition-and especially the kind that attempts two years of four-play cycles in repertory-must be made of stern stuff indeed, and the good news is that Brave Spirits is more than up to the task of bringing Shakespeare's histories to life.

Production Photo: John Stange (left) as Henry Bolingbroke, Ian Blackwell Rogers as Thomas Mowbray, and the cast of Richard the Second. Photo by Claire Kimball.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission.

Richard II will run in repertory, through April 28, with Henry the Fourth, Part I, Henry the Fourth, Part 2, and Henry the Fifth at the The Lab at Convergence, 1819 Quaker Lane, Alexandria VA. Tickets are available online at, or at .


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